Title: What the Dead Know
Author: Laura Lippman
Publisher: Harper [first published 2007, this edition 2008]
No. of Pages: 366
In 1975 two teenage sisters, Sunny and Heather Bethany, disappeared from a Baltimore shopping mall one Saturday afternoon. Despite a lengthy police investigation no trace of the girls was ever found. Their parents, Miriam and Dave, cope as best they can but the event changes the course of both their lives. Fast forward to the present day and, in the aftermath of a car accident, a woman claims that she is the missing Heather Bethany. Due to some inconsistencies in her story and their inability to confirm any of the facts that she gives them, police aren’t convinced she is who she claims to be.
Reading this book was a frustrating experience. As happened when I saw the movie The Sixth SenseI worked out very early on the twist that would come at the end spent the rest of the time wondering why the heck no one else could see it. Most of the time having worked out the end doesn’t impact my enjoyment of a book as there are many other things to occupy my mind: other plot threads, character development and so on. Here though it hindered my reading as I found it quite unbelievable that no one involved in the story ever voiced the possibility that was so blindingly obvious to me. Plots like this rely on keeping the reader guessing and I wasn’t (guessing that is). Every new revelation just cemented what I had already worked out and so I was bored by the chapters focusing on the present day investigation into the woman claiming to be Heather.
On other levels the book worked. I enjoyed the structure of it for example. The criss-crossing between a range of time frames was well done and although it didn’t follow any recognisable pattern it wasn’t confusing. We learned a lot about Heather and Sunny’s childhoods, the lives of their parents following the girls’ disappearance and a little about the woman who may, or may not, be the adult Heather. We also saw glimpses of the people who investigated the case, both at the time of the disappearance and in the present day, although this was by no means a police procedural.
Some of the characters were stunningly developed: in particular Miriam and Dave the parents of the two girls and, for me, the revelation of the various facets of their personalities and lives both before and after the disappearance of their children was the highlight of the book. Lippman portrays two very different ways that people involved in the same horror might deal with it and both are equally credible. When Miriam wonders which event in her life prior to the day of the disappearance she might go back to and change for the entire thing to have been avoided I could feel the genuine agony that thought would cause as it played a never-ending loop in a parent’s mind. The rest of the characters though weren’t nearly as interesting.
Even putting aside the fact I wasn’t terribly engaged by the plot I’m not entirely sure why this book has generated so much awards fuss (check out Kerrie’s list for more details). For me it was pretty much a middle of the pack read with occasional sparks of real interest.
My rating 3/5
Reviewed by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise