10 November 2008

Review: WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, Laura Lippman

Hatchette Livre, 2007, 373 pages, ISBN 978-0-7528-8851-4

A woman fails to stop after causing an accident on the icy road of the Baltimore Beltway. She knows she should slow down, stop, check on the other car, but she is close to her exit. Her car is damaged and barely driveable, so she parks it on the shoulder of the road and begins walking. She is stopped by a patrol officer who barely understands what she is telling him when she says "I'm one of the Bethany girls".

Thirty years before the Bethany girls aged eleven and fifteen had disappeared on the Easter weekend from the Mall. There had been few clues about what had happened to them, no ransom note, occasional false sightings, and then silence for thirty years. So if this woman was one of them, where had she been all that time? and what had happened to her sister?

Although the woman seems very familiar with the area and even the facts of the case, we are not sure whether this is information she has picked up from newspaper reports, or whether she really does know things that were never revealed in the papers. Kevin Infante, the detective assigned to the case, believes she is a fraud, but every now and again a niggling doubt creeps in. On the other hand Kay Sullivan, the social worker with whom "Jane Doe" stays while her circumstances are investigated, remembers the panic that gripped the city when the girls disappeared. Her lawyer believes she is one of the missing sisters.

We are all familiar with the scenario with the technique of cold case reviews where new eyes cast over the accumulated evidence draw new conclusions. That's not quite what happens in WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. The present day investigating team are not dealing with all the facts. Some details were deliberately removed from the case files by the former investigating detective. So the current team do not hold all the cards they need. But we learn also that the investigating team of thirty years ago did not have all the information either.

I don't think I've ever changed my mind so often. The plot is cleverly woven, but when all is finally revealed, it is hard to understand why you didn't see the answer right from the very beginning.

My rating: 4.7

In my Progress Report a few days back I wrote about the awards this book has already won, and the other shortlists it has made it on to, so I won't repeat that information here.

In 2005 I read BY A SPIDER'S THREAD, and gave it a rating of 5.
Mark Rubin's family is missing -- and the police can't do a thing because all the evidence indicates that his wife left willingly. So the successful furrier turns to Tess Monaghan, hoping she can help him find his wife and three children. Tess doesn't know quite what to make of Rubin, a wealthy Orthodox Jew who refuses to shake her hand and doles out vitally important information in grudging dribs and drabs. According to her client, he and his beautiful wife, Natalie, had a flawless, happy marriage. Yet one day, without any warning or explanation, Natalie gathered up their children and vanished.
Tapping into a network of fellow investigators spread across the country, Tess is soon able to locate the runaway wife and her stolen progeny, moving furtively from state to state, town to town. But the Rubins are not alone. A man is traveling with them, a stranger described by witnesses as "handsome" and "charming" but otherwise unremarkable to these casual observers, who have no way of sensing the fury beneath his smooth surface.


Anonymous said...

I was ambivalent about the previous standalone by Laura Lippman. I think it was about the second book I ever reviewed on my blog - the first was Jar City by Indridason.

The book I read, which was very slow and I think involved someone who had been imprisoned, was well-written but ultimately unsatisfying. The solution depended on the reader not being told about a conversation between two characters when they were staying with each other, so bit of a cheat. The reviewers raved about it, though.

Anonymous said...

Tik Writes
I enjoy reading biographies but LISTENING to mysteries during my commute. My grandmother hooked me on Agatha Christie novels 40 years ago as a child. There are few writers and/or books these days that can have me stumped until the last chapter (seriously I treat them as puzzles and inevitably can piece together the clues)...but this one...kept me guessing almost to the end...well, okay, until Laura revealed it to me whole cloth. In addition the Laura's prose is "better than genre", I would call it "great" writing in the style of Dickens or Bronte.


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