He sat you down, looked straight into your eyes, and told you that families didn’t work that way. A family was a team, a unit, a country unto itself, the one part of her identity that would remain constant the rest of her life. “We lock our front door against strangers,” he said, “but never against each other.” – from What The Dead Know, page 3 –
The Bethany sisters, Heather aged eleven and Sunny aged fifteen, take a trip to the mall one day and are never seen again. The investigation into their disappearance goes cold, and their parents try to move on with their lives – one never accepts the children will not be found, the other is convinced they are dead. Then thirty years later a car loses control on a highway near Baltimore and the driver leaves the scene. When she is located, she tells the police an amazing story – although she is driving a car registered to a Penelope Jackson, her real name (she claims) is Heather, the youngest Bethany sister. But her story seems unbelievable and her allegations don’t always square up with the facts.
In her latest novel, Laura Lippman uses flashbacks and multiple points of view to untangle the mystery of the missing girls. Her character development is excellent. Along with Miriam (the girls’ mother) and the young woman who calls herself Heather, Lippman engages the reader with a playboy cop named Kevin Infante (who is the lead detective in the case), a flashy lawyer named Gloria, Chet Willoughby (the retired detective still haunted by the case), and a book obsessed social worker named Kay. But it is the mystery itself which drives the story, and the plot weaves and twists and keeps the reader unbalanced. Lippman knows her way through a police investigation, and she knows how to turn up the heat on a cold case. What The Dead Know keeps the reader guessing until the end.
What The Dead Know is as much an exploration of the psyche of its characters as it is an unraveling of a mystery. Lippman reaches into the minds and motivations of every character and in doing so engages the reader in a psychological study of human behavior under extreme situations. This novel reminds me of Patricia Cornwell’s early work – sharply imagined, expertly written, and gripping. This is the first book I’ve read by Lippman, but I have added her to my must-read authors list. If you are looking for a superb mystery, look no further than What The Dead Know.