I have a few Laura Lippman books in the 746 but hadn’t read any before trying her most recent book, Sunburn, last year. I loved Sunburn and thought it was stylish and well-written, so decided to have a look and see if her back catalogue contained any other gems.
What the Dead Know is a slick thriller that uses the disappearance of two sisters in 1975 to pose interesting questions about identity, legacy and victimhood.
Thirty years ago, two sisters, Sunny and Heather Bethany, aged eleven and fifteen, disappeared on Easter Saturday on a trip to a Baltimore shopping mall. Never found and the case never solved, their disappearance consumed the lives of their parents and the cop in charge of the case.
So, in 2005, when a woman is involved in a hit-and-run accident near the Bethany’s childhood home and claims to be Heather, the younger sister, is she to be believed? She certainly knows a lot about the case and a lot about Heather’s life but she seems to be hiding secrets of her own. Every piece of information she gives them – the possible grave of her older sister and a possible perpetrator who now has dementia – seems to lead to yet another dead end.
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.
There are, of course, an infinite number of places where one is not, yet only oneplace where one actually is.
Written long before the trend for unreliable narrators, What the Dead Know is a particularly smart impostor story, which is incredibly well structuerd. Moving back and forth between the last day the Bethany girls were seen alive and the present day, the novel manages to keep the reader guessing about the main character’s veracity right up to the end, while at the same time creating a revelation which still makes sense. There are no twists here for the sake of it and once the truth is apparent, it is clear that the hints have been there all along.
The changing time periods allow Lippman to drop these clues like breadcrumbs – sparingly and teasingly so that just when you think you know what’s happening, something else comes along to upend your theory.
There is a vast roll call of characters here, but all are expertly sketched and all could feature in their own stand alone book. Detective Infante, the handsome young investigator has to work out how far to push Heather to get to the truth. Attorney Gloria Bustamante is happy to look after her new client as long as she is sure of getting paid and retired police Chief Willoughby has been haunted by the case he couldn’t solve back in the ’70s. At the heart is the Bethany family – so seemingly happy before this unspeakable tragedy that exposed the fissures in their every day life.
Who are we really? Who do we pretend to be? That question is at the heart of What the Dead Know as it explores how far we will go to hide the things we are most ashamed of. This depth is what makes What the Dead Know a superior thriller and a real page-turner. Highly recommended.
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20 Books of Summer: 1/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!