Review: What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

13 August 2008

Most of Laura Lippman’s books have featured Tess Monaghan, a former journalist, now a private detective in Baltimore.  However, she has also written a number of others that all feature Kevin Infante, a Baltimore County police detective, his colleague, Nancy Porter, and his sergeant, Harold Lenhardt.  All of these books have a common theme in that they are all based on an incident involving young girls, and how the consequences of that incident impact on the characters involved and their families.  This approach gives Laura Lippman the opportunity to delve more into the minds and motivations of the people concerned, and in particular how the girls think and respond on the basis of their environment and individual characters.  The results are some very good books, and especially What the Dead Know, which in many ways reminded me of that other great Baltimore writer, Anne Tyler.

In Every Secret Thing, two eleven-year old girls are convicted of killing a baby, and following their release seven years later another child goes missing.  In The Power of Three, three teenage girls are found shot at school, one dead, one seriously injured, but the evidence doesn’t match the survivor’s story.  The plot in What the Dead Know centres on the disappearance of the Bethany girls, Sunny and Heather, in 1975, and the apparent reappearance of one of them in the present day.  The story unfolds through a range of perspectives at a range of times – the woman claiming to be Heather Bethany; Kay Sullivan, a social worker; Miriam Toles, previously Bethany, the girls’ mother; and the police, Kevin Infante, Nancy Porter, Dan Lenhardt, and Chet Willoughby, the policeman on the original case.  The other major character in the book is Baltimore and the countryside around it.

Laura Lippman maintains a superb tension, flicking backwards and forwards in time and place and perspective to bring us pieces of the story, pieces of the characters.  Every now and then there are surprise revelations, but the police continue to chip away to try and find the truth.  The outcome is brilliant in its inevitability.  The characters in this book are reminiscent of characters in Anne Tyler’s books, in that they possess a quality of peculiarity or eccentricity that takes them a little outside the normal – it could be Dave Bethany’s Fivefold Path, or Kay Sullivan’s recourse to reading books in preference to other people’s company – and provides an explanation for why things might happen the way they do.  This is one of the best books I have read this year.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, Published by Orion (2008, paperback); ISBN: 978-0-7528-9337-2

Other books by Laura Lippman:

Featuring Tess Monaghan – Baltimore Blues (1997), Charm City (1997), Butchers Hill (1998), In Big Trouble (1999), The Sugar House (2000), In a Strange City (2001), The Last Place (2002), By A Spider’s Thread (2004), No Good Deeds (2006), Another Thing to Fall (2008).

Other – Every Secret Thing (2003), To The Power of Three (2005), What the Dead Know (2007)

Short stories – Baltimore Noir (ed. 2006)

See also the Wikipedia entry and the fantasticfiction site entry.