What the Dead Know, Laura Lipman

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Laura Lipman can usually be counted on to provide a mystery that is more than a mystery.  Her intricate plots are always just as much about love, family, and the difficult choices we make as they are about solving a crime.  What the Dead Know is no exception.

What the Dead Know is the story of the Bethany sisters-two young girls who disappeared without a trace in the summer of 1975.  Thirty years later, a woman turns up claiming to be one of the lost sisters, but the circumstances of her sudden reappearance leave more questions than answers.  Joe Infante, a detective in Baltimore, and Kay, a social worker who is assigned to evaluate and protect the rights of "Heather Bethany" can sense that the woman is lying, but about what, and why?  Each tries to get to the bottom of the mystery in their own way, but it is not until the mother of the girls arrives from the life she managed to make for herself in Mexico that everyone finally gets the full story.

Alternating between the past and present day, Lipman weaves together a narrative that is engaging and infuriating-well, really it is engaging partly because it is so infuriating.  Getting to the end of a chapter was like a cliffhanger at the end of your favorite show.  Bits and pieces of the story slowly start to coalesce into an almost clear picture, and then you learn something that makes you reevaluate what you thought you knew.  The general gist of the girls' story-kidnapped and held for years against their will-is something that has become almost cliche in contemporary mysteries.  But Lipman's treatment of it made it feel familiar yet new at the same time.

What I found so interesting as I was reading was that I didn't really like any of the characters.  Not the cop, not the "found" sister, not the father or mother.  I can't remember the last time that I was able to get this into a book where I didn't really feel sympathetic towards any of the characters.  But somehow it worked.  Even though I found myself annoyed with everyone at one time or another I still wanted to know what happen.  Maybe Lipman's biggest risk was making "Heather" so unlikeable.  We want our lost girls to be sweet and damaged and innocent.  Well, "Heather" was damaged all right.  She was manipulative, emotionally stunted, selfish, and a liar.  But after learning about the circumstances that led her back to the place she disappeared from, that all made sense to me.  How else would you feel if you were ripped away from your home and family, forced into sexual bondage and a new identity, and then escaped into a world that you thought had forgotten you, and would tear you apart if they remembered?  Lipman explores the ties of family, and those who become our family, even in the most horrifying of times.


  1. This is the first Lippman I ever read and it had me hooked. I devour her books.

  2. I heard great things about Laura Lippman and from what you're telling me, I think I'd love every bit of this book. Really talented crime writers write about the difficulties that you run into when you make bad choices. Seems that Lippman understands that.


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