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What the Dead Know: A Novelby Laura Lippman
"What the Dead Know, which takes its title from Ecclesiastes, is a particularly well done puzzle by a true pro. While clever readers may be able to guess the mystery woman's identity, that won't detract from the book's considerable enjoyment. (Grade: A-)" Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire CSM review)
Synopses & Reviews
Thirty years ago two sisters disappeared from a shopping mall. Their bodies were never found and those familiar with the case have always been tortured by these questions: How do you kidnap two girls? Who — or what — could have lured the two sisters away from a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon without leaving behind a single clue or witness?
Now a clearly disoriented woman involved in a rush-hour hit-and-run claims to be the younger of the long-gone Bethany sisters. But her involuntary admission and subsequent attempt to stonewall investigators only deepens the mystery. Where has she been, why has she waited so long to come forward? Could her abductor truly be a beloved Baltimore cop? There isn't a shred of evidence to support her story, and every lead she gives the police seems to be another dead-end — a dying, incoherent man, a razed house, a missing grave, and a family that disintegrated long ago, torn apart not only by the crime but by the fissures the tragedy revealed in what appeared to be the perfect household.
In a story that moves back and forth across the decades, there is only one person who dares to be skeptical of a woman who wants to claim the identity of one Bethany sister without revealing the fate of the other. Will he be able to discover the truth?
"Edgar-winner Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan mystery series (No Good Deeds, etc.), shows she's as good as Peter Abrahams and other A-list thriller writers with this outstanding stand-alone. A driver who flees a car accident on a Maryland highway breathes new life into a 30-year-old mystery — the disappearance of the young Bethany sisters at a shopping mall — after she later tells the police she's one of the missing girls. As soon as the mystery woman drops that bombshell, she clams up, placing the new lead detective, Kevin Infante, in a bind, as he struggles to gain her trust while exploring the odd holes in her story. Deftly moving between past and present, Lippman presents the last day both sisters, Sunny and Heather, were seen alive from a variety of perspectives. Subtle clues point to the surprising but plausible solution of the crime and the identity of the mystery woman. Lippman, who has also won Shamus, Agatha, Anthony and Nero Wolfe awards, should gain many new fans with this superb effort. 9-city author tour. (Mar.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A woman of about 40 is involved in an auto accident outside Baltimore. When police demand identification, she has none. Pressed, she claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger of two sisters, ages 11 and 15, who vanished from a Baltimore shopping mall 30 years earlier. The woman won't give details ('I don't want to be the freak of the week on all those news channels'), and the police are skeptical... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of her story. Neither they, nor we, know if the woman is telling the truth, lying or delusional. Thus begins Laura Lippman's hypnotic 'What the Dead Know.' In an author's note, Lippman explains that the idea for this novel came to her two years ago, when she and some friends drove past Wheaton Plaza and conversation stopped because they all remembered the case of sisters Sheila and Katherine Lyon, who disappeared there in 1975. She is quick to add that her fictional Bethany family is nothing at all like the Lyons. 'What the Dead Know' is, in fact, a remarkable feat of the imagination. It contains echoes of other recent novels — Dennis Lehane's 'Shutter Island,' with its narrator who may or may not be reliable; Alice Sebold's 'The Lovely Bones,' with its story of a girl's murder; and Martha Grimes' 'The Old Wine Shades,' with its murder that may never have happened — but surpasses them all in its ambition and depth. Lippman's plot taps into powerful emotions. The very uncertainty that is so awful for the parents is what makes the novel so gripping for readers. What happened to the girls? If the woman is Heather, why has she not come forward in 30 years? Where is the other sister, Sunny? The woman knows a great deal about Heather, but there are also hints that she's lying, along with tantalizing glimpses of the ordeal she claims to have endured. The present-day investigation alternates with flashbacks to the Bethanys' life before and after the girls vanished. As the book nears its end, the reader can imagine all sorts of outcomes — and, happily, the one that Lippman provides is a good one. If it is the plot that hooks us, the novel is most impressive for its characterizations, its rich details and the quality of the writing. Lippman can be funny, raunchy and caustic when she chooses, but she also can take us, with rare sensitivity, inside the hearts of all four members of this troubled family. For much of the book, we see what the uncertainty about the girls does to their parents, Miriam and Dave. As time passes, they must assume that their daughters are dead, even as they fear they may still be prisoners in some cellar or brothel, and as they also indulge in fantasies that somehow the girls are somewhere safe and happy. ('A kindly family in the Peace Corps, who whisked them off to Africa.') Despite moments of comedy, this is overwhelmingly a story of pain and loss. Miriam, when first seen, is having an affair because she's bored with Dave, a failed businessman who imagines himself an artist. Their marriage does not survive the girls' disappearance, and we follow Miriam as she tries to escape the horror her life has become. After moving to Texas and then Mexico, and retaking her maiden name, she is finally anonymous, 'allowed the luxury of not being the martyred mother, poor sad Miriam Bethany ... allowed to move through her days without tragedy tugging visibly at everything she did.' Then, after 30 years, she receives a call to return to Baltimore and confront the woman who claims to be her daughter. As for the woman who claims to be Heather, in one of several glimpses into her captivity she reports that, at age 12, after her abduction, she was permitted to attend a birthday party at which the kids played the kissing game Five Minutes in Heaven. She describes those five minutes in a closet, awkwardly kissing some surly boy, and then adds that she was the only one of the children who would return home that night to have 'full-out intercourse in a feather bed.' It's a poignant story — but we don't know if it's true and won't until the final pages of the novel. And here is Dave, the father, who still receives agonizing calls from cranks who claim to have information about the girls: 'His past was like riding a monster with a lashing tail. He clung to it reluctantly, knowing that he would be crushed by its heedless feet if he ever relinquished his grip.' Often, amid the pain, Lippman diverts us with amusing digressions, like this one about the arrival of telephone answering machines 20 years ago: 'It turned out that the United States was a desperately lonely place, where everyone had been worrying that a single missed phone call might change one's destiny.' It was Lippman's destiny to drive past that shopping plaza and write this novel. If you only know her from her Tess Monaghan series, or if you don't know her work at all, read 'What the Dead Know.' It's an all but flawless performance by a writer at the peak of her powers." Reviewed by Charles Kaiser, author of 'The Gay Metropolis,' which will be published in an updated edition this summerElinor Lipman, whose most recent novel is 'My Latest Grievance'Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is email@example.com, is the author of 'The Triumph of the Thriller', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The best mystery writing around." Village Voice Literary Supplement
"[A] story of achingly real characters and deep emotional resonance, an intense psychological study of loss....
"What the Dead Know, like the best books in this tradition, is doubly satisfying. You read it once just to move breathlessly toward the finale. Then you revisit it to marvel at how well Ms. Lippman pulled the wool over your eyes." Janet Maslin, New York Times
"Lippman has burnished her storytelling skills and the elegance of her writing to a new level....Lippman has cemented her new standing as a literary novelist who just happens to work in the mystery genre." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Though her ending is a bit of a stretch in this latest offering, the compelling plot and vivid characters prove the author well worthy of honors bestowed." Booklist
"This standalone mystery featuring recurring characters is as heavy on the portrait of one Baltimore family as it is on the whodunit. Lippman fans are most likely to be pleased." Library Journal
"Lippman writes with such a deft touch and with such keen insight." Chicago Sun-Times
"Laura Lippman's stories aren't just mysteries; they are deeply moving explorations of the human heart. She is quite simply one of the best crime novelists writing today." Tess Gerritsen, author of The Mephisto Club
"You don't have to be a mystery lover to appreciate it, a moving portrait of a family's private grief during a public tragedy....Lippman pulls you to the end with an exquisite twist." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bestselling author Lippman returns to the compelling terrain of Every Secret Thing and To the Power of Three with this indelible story of crime and vengeance in which the past becomes all too present.
About the Author
New York Times bestseller Laura Lippman was a Baltimore Sun reporter for twelve years. Her novels have been awarded every major prize in crime fiction. A first-ever recipient of the Mayor's Prize for Literary Excellence, she lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
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