What The Dead Know – Book Review

whatthedeadknow 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.

Highly recommended.


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  1. I have this one on my shelf and now I can’t wait to read it!! Thanks for the review!

    • Tara on June 16, 2009 at 07:24

    I’m going to keep this in mind! I recently read Lippman’s latest and while I liked it, this sounds even better!

    • Staci on June 16, 2009 at 07:55

    When you compared her writing to earlier Cornwell I was hooked!!! Excellent review and I’m certainly adding this one to my must read for 09.

  2. Wow, this sounds super suspenseful! Great review! I’m definitely looking for this book!

    • Kathy on June 16, 2009 at 08:22

    Wow, the book sounds fascinating. I’m curious to know the story of the Bethany sisters.

    • Jenny on June 16, 2009 at 09:03

    I’ve heard great things about this! My only reservation has been how squeamish I am about police procedurals and forensic details in mysteries…

  3. I’m always on the look out for great new thrillers. This sounds really good, so I’ve added it to the wishlist.

    • Cathy on June 16, 2009 at 10:03

    This was my first Lippman book, too, and I was just as impressed. I’ve got Life Sentences sitting on my TBR shelves now, as well as the first in her Tess Monahan mystery series.

    • Diane on June 16, 2009 at 12:34

    I have the audio version of this one; great review. glad u enjoyed it.

  4. I recently read my first Lippman book, Life Sentence. I really liked it. Now I want to read this one. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. I’ve been wanting to read Lippman for awhile, thanks for this review, Wendy, it’s good to know you enjoyed it. 🙂

  6. I listened to this one on audio – it’s an excellent production. Great review!

    • Wendy on June 17, 2009 at 07:44

    Kristina: You’re welcome – hope you enjoy it!

    Tara: I hope you’ll like it as much as I did.

    Staci: She definitely reminds me of an early Cornwell (Cornwell’s latest books haven’t been as good, but her early work blew me away and made me a fan).

    Rhapsody: Thanks 🙂

    Kathy: It is a fascinating one – I guarantee you won’t guess the ending!

    Jenny: This is not a squeamish type of book – not a lot of forensics included…I would classify it more as a psychological crime mystery.

    Jackie: I think you would enjoy this one.

    Cathy: I’ll be interested to see your reviews of her other books – I know I’ll be watching for books by Lippman now.

    Diane: Thanks 🙂

    Booklogged: I need to check out Life Sentences – I’ve been hearing good things about it.

    Amy: You’re welcome!

    Carrie: You’re the second person who has noted that the audio version of this book is well done – good to know!

  7. Sounds like another perfect recommendation for my book club. We’re due for another mystery. Everyone loved In the Woods and that was a fantastic book to discuss. This one sounds right up my alley. Thanks, Wendy!!

  8. I’ve been wanting to read something else by this author besides the one book I read by her years ago. This sounds so good, I may have to give this one a try. Thanks for the great review, Wendy!

    • Wendy on June 20, 2009 at 11:39

    Les: This would make a good book club read. Enjoy!

    WendyCat: With your love of mysteries, this one is a good one for you to read…really great!

    • Kim L on June 20, 2009 at 18:47

    Sounds absolutely fascinating! I’m already extremely intrigued.

    • Wendy on June 22, 2009 at 06:33

    Kim: It is a terrific book – hope you’ll manage to pick it up and read it someday!

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