on March 15, 2007
This is one of the finest suspense novels I've read in years. Lippman is always terrific, whether she is writing her Edgar-winning Tess Monaghan series or stand-alone crime novels, but this book is exceptional, even by her high standards. Inspired by an actual incident, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW is a brilliant examination of old crimes and their present consequences.
In 1975, two teenage sisters disappeared from a Baltimore shopping mall, and their fate was never determined. Now, thirty years later, an emotionally unstable woman claims to be one of the missing sisters. Her story has a lot of holes in it, and the search is on for the truth of what happened on that long-ago day. Lippman brings just the right Gothic/Noir touches to her masterful tale, slowly building the tension until it is almost unbearable. Don't miss this haunting, beautifully written novel. Highly recommended.
There's no question in my mind that Lippman is a very talented author. This book grabbed me pretty much right from the beginning and I could hardly wait for her to dole out the bits and pieces of information that led to the big picture of the whole story. However, while the pacing was good and her characters were very vivid, I did not care for the ending and didn't find it all that realistic.
The character who stood out the most for me was Heather. Though she is ostensibly the victim, she is not a sympathetic character. She's such a narcissist that I was really turned off by her. I found it feasible that someone who'd been through such an ordeal could emerge with this type of psychology but I found Heather really appalling and distasteful at times. This was actually rather refreshing to me and I think it gave the story more resonance than a tearful, weepy, and really "victimlike" victim would have. She was compelling in a rather creepy way. This considered, though, I didn't find what ultimately happened to her in the end to be convincing.
Another weakness of this novel was that the police seemed to me to be a bit stereotypically portrayed. Kevin was far too much of a two-dimensional character and, for that reason, I didn't find him very interesting. The womanizing policeman with a history of failed marriages has been done to death and it would have been more interesting to me had Kevin been more unexpected. Lippman does deliver somewhat with Kevin's female ex-partner but this character doesn't get a lot of pages, which is disappointing. I think the novel would have been even better had she been the lead on the case.
The great strength of this novel is the way it leaps from present to past again and then weaves all of the threads of the story into one tapestry. I especially liked reading about Dave and Miriam as the more they were fleshed out, the more compelling I found the overall story. I found this akin to my own experiences growing up, as I came to realize that my parents were more than just Mom and Dad, they were people too. Dave and Miriam are complex, as is the structure of their marriage, and it was fascinating to read their thoughts on how their own actions and choices may or may not have influenced what happened to their daughters.
Overall, I liked this work and would like to read more of Lippman's but I didn't find it quite worth of the high praise that I've seen lavished upon it.
on April 18, 2007
In "What the Dead Know," Laura Lippman displays her literary flair and stylistic genius in a tightly woven, hypnotic, highly intelligent adventure.
In 1975, two sisters vanished without a trace from a Baltimore mall. It was a dead end crime---no reliable witnesses, no clues, no leads, no hope.
Thirty years later a hit and run driver (with no ID) claims to be Heather Bethany (one of the sisters).
She has knowledge that only the sisters would have. As the story shifts between the decades, between fact and fiction, between imposter and the genuine article; detective Kevin Infante (a wonderful character) feels something about "Heather's" story is out of kilter.
The skeptical Infante is unconventional and uses good old-fashioned shoe leather to track down clues, hunches and intuition. His efforts lead him to believe Heather may be one a half dozen identities---or maybe all of them, or none of them.
The three-dimensional characters are caught up in loss, redemption, scrambled identities, in this evocative tale of intrigue.
Filled with pop culture touchstones from the different eras, this powerfully suspenseful crime story, seamlessly spooled out from various points of view will leave you sleep deprived.
Laura Lippman is an uncompromising novelist who is dazzling at hiding clues in plain sight. She creates a morass of deception where the details are as important as the narrative.
"What the Dead Know" is subtle, shrewd and so tightly plotted you cannot afford to skip a page.
It was a parent's worst nightmare. Sunny and Heather Bethany disappeared from a Baltimore mall in 1975 and no real trace of them was ever found. Now thirty years later a disoriented woman walks away from a motor vehicle accident and claims to be one of the Bethany sisters.
Author Laura Lippman built a story spanning the thirty years, moving back and forth in time and bringing the characters to life. Sunny, fifteen, and Heather, eleven, are realistic and well-delineated. Their parents, Miriam and Dave, survive the loss in very different ways. The present-day mystery woman is abrupt and secretive, not likable and not easy to know. While two of the characters seemed to me to be somewhat stereotyped, the rest had the kind of realistic loose ends that only a good writer can create.
What the Dead Know feels like a novel rather than a suspense novel, if you care to make that distinction. There is a great deal of beautifully written back-story and some readers may think it's extraneous to the plot line, but the narrative conveys a vivid sense of time and place that is its own reward. The bonus I found in this book is the way Lippman wrapped it all together into a surpisingly well-supported ending.
Recently I've read several books in which the narrative moves back and forth along the time line of the story. I'm a little wary of that structure but Lippman handled it beautifully.
I listened to the unabridged CD version of this book and found the performance by Linda Emond to be very effective. While I prefer a book in print, this is one audio presentation I can recommend enthusiastically. I'll definitely be reading more from this fine writer.
Linda Bulger, 2008
Two young sisters, Sunny and Heather Bethany, disappear from a Maryland shopping mall. The case has gone sub-zero until thirty years later, when a woman apprehended for a hit-and-run claims to be Heather. Kevin Infante, the detective assigned to the case, struggles to identify the woman's true identity and, in the process, solve the Bethany case.
The plot unfolds in a non-linear manner that many will find distracting, relying extensively on flashbacks and multiple point-of-view characters. The strength of this narrative structure is that is allows the reader to experience the tragic events from different perspectives and come to know all of the important characters on a very personal level. The weakness of this approach is that the novel lacks a real center or protagonist, forcing the reader to reorient at the start of each chapter to figure out who happens to be narrating.
This was my first Laura Lippman novel but likely will not be my last. The strength of her characterization, skill at building and maintaining suspense, and willingness to stray from the linear format of the usual police procedural impressed me, notwithstanding the noted shortcomings.
on March 31, 2007
From the very beginning I was blown away by What the Dead Know - it's the American equivalent of a Ruth Rendell book in its penetrating psychology, mordant wit, perspicacious view of modern life and expert mystery plot, which was, as it should be, surprising and inevitable at the same time. Since I think that Rendell is not just one of the finest mystery writers but one of the finest writers in the world period that's no small praise.
Like Rendell's best books (many of which are written under the name Barbara Vine) What the Dead Know is a stand alone rather than a series book. It centers on that great old mystery trope of Brat Farrar and countless others - is the adult who appears out of nowhere really the grown up version of the child who disappeared so mysteriously years ago or an imposter? In the end the theme is simply identity, and Lippman explores it masterfully, moving through the consciousness of many characters (thankfully in the third person), slipping through time and space to construct a moving picture of our time. I'll gleefully point out that Lippman is no product of an academic MFA program, but learned her craft the old fashioned way (you know, like that Hemingway guy) as a reporter.
It was also very encouraging to see that this book entered the NYT bestseller list at #11, which (almost) restores my faith in the American reading public. I'm not going to go on and on about it, except to recommend it most highly. It certainly blows away most of the "serious" fiction that's out there these days, suspenseful while remaining profound and engaging.
(In the interest of total transparency I must reveal that Laura Lippman once stole some Fig Newtons from me, but that act did not influence this review in any way).
on March 18, 2007
Laura Lippman has been a favorite since I first came across Baltimore Blues. This is a stand alone - not a Tess Monaghan book - and, as the subject says, this is Ms Lippman's best one yet.
Told from several different viewpoints over 30-years, this is a very tightly-woven tale with the solution jumping into my head a mere paragraph before it was revealed.
This is a real page-turner. I actually picked it up yesterday a a local signing and came home, made dinner, and settled down to read the 1st few chapters. At 1:30 am, I had finished the book without realizing what time it was. I literally could not put it down.
By the way, if you have a chance to attend a signing, do go. Ms. Lippman puts on one heck of a good presentation.
on July 16, 2007
I just finished this book and feel compelled to write a review. Since other reviewers have done a great job summarizing the main plotline without giving too much away, I'll skip most of the details and focus on my own impressions. First off, this book does a phenomenal job at evoking human emotion. But not just emotion for emotion's sake, we're not talking Anita Shreve here. More emotion as a natural consequence of what it means to be alive. In particular, the ways in which the characters deal with grief and injustice and self-hate are beautifully rendered. Second, the plot twists are very well done. We're talking true "dun, dun, dun" moments without making the reader feel cheap. Does it all get revealed at the end of the book? Yes! Do you get closure? Yes Yes! It's entirely and utterly satisfying. There were a few detracting elements, mainly a few minor characters that were more distracting than anything, and some confusing scenes which I had to reread several times to understand. One recommendation when you start--I found the first chapter a little tough to read--the voice feels a little disembodied and it's a bit confusing. Stick through it; it picks up quickly, definitely by p. 50...
How does a parent live from one minute to the next when a child has disappeared? In this interesting novel, Ms. Lippman shows us how two parents grieve and approach the tragedy when both their daughters go missing. In a cold case genre, one of the missing daughters shows up via a traffic accident and the story begins. We learn about the parents, the girls, the detective involved and the minor characters who contribute haunting revelations. I thought the mother, Miriam, was particularly interesting and she was a sharp contrast to her husband, Dave. There's a good mixture of drama: possible kidnapping and murder, adultery, bad cops and how one can not escape one's genetic make up. I did figure out the ending but, except for a few flaws, Ms. Lippman presented a solid mystery and character study.
on June 11, 2007
As a suspense novel, this is a disappointment. A woman claims to be one of two sisters who have been presumed dead for 30 years. As the story plods along to it's conclusion, so many bits and pieces of irrelevant information are thrown at the reader that the storyline becomes confused and fractured. The characters are generally unlikable and lack depth. To make up for the lack of development, the author assigns them characteristics that are irrelevant to the story (Infante's womanizaing) or annoying (Willoughby's use of language) or both. The victim is manipulative and deceitful. The male characters are portrayed so negatively that one wonders if the author is holding a grudge against the entire species. They are womanizers, closet homosexuals, violent, inept, unethical, arrogant, or a combination of the above. The women don't fare much better (Ms. Lippman may be a bit hung up on sexual orientation issues), although Miriam, the victim's mother is endowed with a certain strength and self-preservation quality. Only Miriam and Dave, the victims' father, come across as real people.
So if you read this book as the story of how losing two children to an unknown fate changes the lives of their parents, the story is more rewarding. But its very close resemblance to a similar case in the same area at the same time is pretty insensitive.
Whichever way you approach the book, you'll have to deal with the author's insistence that all members of law enforcement call themselves "a police." Whatever the author is trying to accomplish with this affected device, its constant repetition becomes just one more pointless distraction. The author should take the advice of her protagonist regarding the use of the English language.
Overall, a disappointing first experience with this author, but I will try another of her books for the sake fo comparison.