Haunting Detective Tale Is a Debut Winner; BOOK REVIEWS Debut Author Catherine O'Flynn Is Receiving Plaudits Aplenty but Is Reluctant to Write Full-Time

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That all-important first step on the literary ladder can come as a bolt out of the blue.

The idea, the plot, the characters can come together seem-lessly. There may be some redrafting, some tweaking, but it's done and dusted in the blink of an eye.

For other would-be writers, the germ of an idea is born, developing and growing over years until they can stand it no longer: the nagging thoughts have to be expunged. The novel has to be written.

Catherine O'Flynn falls into the latter category.

Her debut novel, What Was Lost, which is published by Birmingham-based Tindal

Street Press, has received glowing reviews from the literary world.

A dark and elegant mystery, with great comedic elements, What Was Lost is based in Green Oaks shopping centre, loosely based on her experiences as a shop assistant at Merry Hill.

"I had a job working long hours at Merry Hill - though it could have been any large shopping centre - and there were many things about it that made me want to write," she says.

"The trance-like state of the shoppers consuming everything in their wake; the eeriness of the empty centre at night; the constant awareness of surveillance; the differing experiences of staff and shoppers; the industrial past buried beneath it.

"I kept writing about it -almost obsessively, I really wanted to pin down the essence of the place - but at that stage there was no plan for this to be a novel."

It was not until the 36-year-old from Hall Green heard an urban legend that was making the rounds that the idea for a novel was born.

"I heard a story amongst the centre security guards of a child being seen on one of the CCTV monitors in the middle of the night and that image stayed with me and was the starting point for the novel," she recalls.

But it was not until three years later, when she moved to Barcelona with her partner of 13 years, Peter, that she decided to sit down and write the novel. It took six months to complete.

The time-slip story interweaves two threads: a ten-year-old girl called Kate, a would-be private detective who stalks the shopping centre in the 1980s seeking out suspicious characters, and two workers at Green Oaks, 20 years on, who keep glimpsing images of a small girl on the centre's CCTV screens.

There are a wealth of breathtaking twists and turns, scenarios that could be lifted from anyone's life and a compelling and wicked style of writing that keeps the reader's interest.

How many times have people said they found a book hard to put down? It might be an overused comment, but it is hard to argue with in O'Flynn's case.

It is set in the Midlands, a factor that was important for the woman who is now a box office assistant at the mac, in Birmingham.

"Place was very important to me. Not because I wanted to write about the Midlands in some general way, but because I wanted to describe a particular landscape," she says.

"I grew up in Nechells in the 70s and early 80s and that was a time of transition in the area. The factories and cooling towers were disappearing, but the new warehouses and leisure developments like Star City were yet to be built.

"I lived above my parents' shop, surrounded largely by wasteland or abandoned factory spaces in a landscape dominated by the gas towers. …