03 May 2007

What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

373 pages (Hardcover). William Morrow 2007.

A terrific new mystery from Laura Lippman.

Heather and Sunny Bethany, two young sisters, disappeared in the late seventies while on a shopping trip to a local mall. For thirty years the police have been unable to find them. Now, a disoriented woman, involved in a hit-and-run auto accident, claims to be Heather. She says that she and her sister were abducted, her sister killed, and that she had been forced to live under an assumed identity until her captor turned her out when she reached age 18.

Lippman lays out the mystery for us with extensive flashbacks into the Bethany family's lives. Miriam and Dave, the parents, are slightly quirky products of the sixties and seventies, but mostly just normal loving parents of two bright girls. The sisters get along fairly well for siblings with a few years of age difference; there's a certain amount of unwelcome-baby-sister-tagging-along, but we find that Heather, the younger sister, may actually be more mature than Sunny.

The detectives are mostly believable; I did find some seemingly superfluous aspects of their characters slightly irritating (why do we need to know that Infante is a womanizer, and Willoughby independently wealthy?), but this is picking nits. Lippman was probably just trying to make human beings. It's not that easy, and another reader might not feel the way I did.

I was interested in the use of the word "police" in this book. While used in all or most of the conventional (to me) ways, it was also used as an objective noun, as in "Willoughby was a retired police," or "I am a police." In the lexicon to which I am accustomed, this would have been "policeman," or the more politically-correct "police officer." Perhaps in Maryland this is a common usage. And perhaps I should learn to ignore such minor anomalies, but I found it interesting, if not distracting.

We are given the outline of the mystery, all the necessary characters, all the pieces of the puzzle. I will not spoil this mystery, but I am proud to say that I figured out a small part of it before reading to the end. This was just enough to involve me, not enough to make me disenchanted -- in short, this is very skillful mystery writing.

I think Laura Lippman's books will be at our house again -- I hope it will be soon.

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