Book review: What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

What the Dead Know
by Laura Lippman
Orion, 2007.

A woman is driving into Baltimore on the freeway when she skids out of control on some spilt oil. As her car spins around, it catches the fender of an SUV which careers over the edge of the escarpment. A young child is in the back of the car. The woman drives on for a little way, but then stops her car and is picked up by the traffic police. She carries no identification on her and refuses to reveal her name, but in her shocked, injured state, blurts out that she is one of the “Bethany sisters”.

The Bethany sisters were two girls aged 15 and 11 who vanished from a shopping mall in the suburbs, 30 years ago. They were never found. If the accident victim is indeed one of these lost girls now grown up, Baltimore PD will be able to close the case – and hence detective Kevin Infante is assigned to it. He is unable to do much, because the injured woman is in hospital and, aided by a social worker called Kay, has obtained an expensive lawyer (Gloria) to negotiate a deal – she will tell the story of what happened to the Bethany girls in return for not being prosecuted for the traffic violation. Infante and his colleagues have no idea whether or not to believe her, and start their own search to find her identity.

The novel is told from multiple viewpoints and from several periods in time, alternating between them. One of two main narratives is that of the Bethanys – David, Miriam and their daughters Sunny and Heather. The depiction of their family life – their dynamics, how the parents met, and so on, is highly absorbing – several times the same event is told from the point of view of different family members, so one is not sure what to make of the sisters though the parents are more clear cut (Dad is a pain but Mom is lovely). The second main story is that of the present-day, mostly consisting of different people’s perception of the mystery woman and their memories of the abduction. Kay, the social worker, is the most sympathetically portrayed of these, as she becomes dragged into taking a more personal interest than she feels is wholly professional. Infante, as well as the retired policeman who undertook the original investigation, are also well-drawn and add some variation to the otherwise fairly “domestic” plot. Some sections of the book are set in the times between the disappearance and the present: these sections are the most puzzling to the reader, as incidents are told from the point of view of several young women.

The story of the Bethany girls is gradually filled out, as we find out what happened to the parents afterwards – though we don’t know much about the police investigation at the time or why the parents don’t always share with the police the fact that, over the years, they receive phone calls from someone who does not speak and from someone (the same person?) who makes vague threats. Eventually, the two plots converge and come to a head as Miriam, the mother of the vanished girls, travels to Baltimore to see if the injured woman is in fact her lost daughter.

I enjoyed this novel very much. In the end there is a twist I failed to see coming, as well as a solid police “cold case” investigation that uncovers the true story of what happened in the mall that day, and a convincing explanation for the 30-year gap between the disappearance and (claimed or real) reappearance. Although the author does not address the psychology of those involved in any detail, she provides a plausible account of what the reader might think to be incredible behaviour by the woman making the Bethany claims. What the Dead Know was published before two very widely publicised cases in Austria and in the USA which seem to bear out the author’s line of reasoning.

Although I enjoyed the book, I felt it disappointing in some minor ways. Several characters’ lives are portrayed in considerable detail but either not developed or are dropped, and there are some digressions that don’t seem relevant to, or add to, the whole. The final pages, once all the pieces of this complex puzzle are in place, seemed a little rushed. These slight downsides did not spoil my enjoyment of the book, which I found to be an intelligently constructed plot combined with good solid characterisations and plenty of “then and now” Baltimore atmosphere. This novel stands very well on its own merits, so I find it odd that the publisher should use a cover blurb likening it to The Lovely Bones and Shutter Island – not a comparison I would make – for what it’s worth, I think this novel is better than either. It is certainly better than one of the author’s earlier novels on a similar theme, Every Secret Thing, in my opinion.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Read other reviews of What The Dead Know at: The Game’s Afoot, Mysteries in Paradise, Reactions to Reading, The Mystery Reader, and Mystery Ink.

NPR interview with the author, discussing the real event that formed the basis of this novel.

Authors’s website. The novel has its own Wikipedia entry.

9 thoughts on “Book review: What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of What the Dead Know. I found it absorbing, and liked it so much that I gave the book as gifts that holiday season. And I found it better than most books by the author. It was a unique read.
    Lippman — in mystery format — discusses some really horrendous social issues, and does that in a very interesting manner. I had not thought of the parallels of the Austrian and U.S. cases, but they are quite apt to this story. I won’t delve into it further to avoid giving spoilers but this book has a lot to recommend it, despite its ups and downs. It’s definitely a riveting and socially conscious book, and story well-told.

  2. Maxine – Thank you for an excellent review. You point out a few of the factors that really made the book work for me. The plot twist you refer to is really effective; so are the portraits of the Bethany family. There are other things I very much liked about the book, too, and strangely enough, although I wondered if the multiple viewpoints and points in time would distract me, they didn’t. Lippman does that very skillfully in this story, I think.

    • I agree, Margot, sometimes they can be distracting or simply not work (as in Cell 8, a book I’ve just finished) – but here they work well, I admire the author’s technique in getting all the backs and forths right as well as clear to the reader.

  3. I can remember being frustrated by this one as it was one of the very few times when I saw the twist that came at the end on about page 6. It happens very rarely with me (occasionally I suspect a thing but rarely I am sure as happened here) and so I wasn’t as engaged by the plot as I might have been. But I do remember finding the stories of the other players, especially the girls’ parents’ very well drawn.

    • It’s funny, isn’t it, Bernadette. Sometimes I’m the same, too, or the identity of the criminal is obvious on first appearance, even without any clues. Other times, as here, I’m fooled! I think this book actually was a bit frustrating because it has elements of being really very very good indeed, but somehow veers away from that ultimate category.

  4. I read this book when it came out and really enjoyed it. I didn’t see the twist at the end coming I’m afraid. I do like Laura Lippman books and actually prefer the stand alones.

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