Costa Book Awards: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey wins coveted first novel award

Emma Healey’s debut, about a detective with dementia, has been described as 'Gran Girl'

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The Independent Culture

Emma Healey’s debut book about an octogenarian sleuth with dementia, which sparked a frenzied bidding war among publishers, has been named best first novel at the Costa Book Awards.

Elizabeth is Missing, which was inspired by the author’s grandmothers, will now compete to be named Costa Book of the Year later this month with the four other category winners.

Ms Healey, who wrote the book over five years including during lunch breaks while she worked at a London art gallery, said: “I am amazed; I can’t quite believe it.”

The book has been compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and has been memorably dubbed “Gone Gran” in reference to the thriller Gone Girl.

“I love the reference,” Ms Healey said. “Though I have to keep pointing out there are no car chases or gory murders, this detective is in her 80s.”


It follows Maud, an elderly lady who is struggling with dementia. While she constantly forgets things and her home is unrecognisable, she is sure her friend Elizabeth is missing and sets out to solve the mystery.

The judges called it a “very special book” adding it “grabbed us from the very first page. Not only is it gripping, but it shows incredible flair and unusual skill”.

Ms Healey had looked to write about dementia as it affected her family. Her grandmother, who suffers with the illness, one day said her friend was missing which proved the trigger for the plot. Her other grandmother loved storytelling “and I used parts from both and put them together,” the author said.

Elizabeth is Missing sparked a nine-way bidding war between publishers, with Penguin winning out, and the television rights were sold before it was even released. Ms Healey said: “It all happened very fast, I almost feel guilty I don’t have one of those stories of being rejected by 30 publishers.”

Ms Healey joked she did not have an “auspicious” start to her writing career, leaving school with five GCSEs, including a C grade in English Literature.

Elizabeth is Missing sparked a nine-way bidding war between publishers

Yet she had aspired to be a writer from an early age, and attending a creative writing course in 2010 helped focus the novel which was released in June. She is working on a second.

Ms Healey will be up against two works that have taken the UK’s literary scene by storm in the past year for Costa Book of the Year 2014.

The winner of novel of the year How to be both by Ali Smith was also on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and won the Goldsmiths Prize.

Helen Macdonald, who won the biography award for H is for Hawk, her memoir about training a goshawk as she sought to deal with the death of her father, also won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

Kate Saunders won the children’s book award for Five Children on the Western Front, and Jonathan Edwards’s debut collection won the poetry prize for My Family and Other Superheroes.

Costa Book Award winners

Costa Novel Award – How to be both by Ali Smith

A genre-busting novel split in two which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. One half follows the story of a Renaissance painter while the other follows a teenager set in the present day. The publishers ordered the two halves randomly.

Costa First Novel Award – Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Ms Healey’s first novel follows Maude, a dementia sufferer who believes her friend is missing and is determined to solve a 70-year-old mystery. It was hugely coveted by the major publishing houses and the TV rights were sold before release.

Costa Biography Award – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

When Ms Macdonald’s father died she was knocked sideways by grief. The academic, who had trained hawks earlier in life, became obsessed with the idea of training a Goshawk, one of the toughest breeds. Her memoir won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

Costa Poetry Award – My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards

The debut poetry collection of English teacher Edwards, from a village near Newport, references characters from the Welsh valleys to pop culture celebrities from Evel Knievel and Sophia Loren to Ian Rush and Marty McFly.

Costa Children’s Book Award – Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

The judges described  the follow up to E Nesbit’s Five Children and It as a “modern masterpiece” by Ms Saunders, an author and journalist. It takes the lead characters and puts them into the trenches of the First World War