Posted on Apr 14, 2007 in Fiction

by Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 2007

I fell for mystery novels early on.  I could take you even now to the mystery section in my hometown library (or take you where it was then!)   During those summer reading clubs, at least for a few summers, it seemed like I read little else.

I still love mystery novels – if they are well written, complex, and the solution is believable.  Laura Lippman’s  new crime/ mystery novel, What the Dead Know, satisfies every one of my criteria.

And I always try to take at least one mystery novel with me on every vacation.  Just before I left on my last vacation (and lacking a mystery novel to take)  I spotted a review of Lippman’s book in the daily New York Times.  They must have reviewed it previously too because the back of the book jacket cites the NYTimes Book Review, using only one word, “Spectacular.” So I hustled over to the bookstore and picked up a copy.

The NYTimes review gave me a hint which I won’t relate here  – because I would have preferred to ferret the mystery out all by myself – but I can tell you at least as much as the book jacket does.

Thirty years ago, two sisters disappeared on Easter Weekend.  Their bodies were never found.  Now, a woman who appears claiming to be one of those sisters.  Is she? Or is she just trying to avoid a hit-and-run citation after her car slid on an oil slick and hit another vehicle, sending it end over end down an embankment.  And avoid explaining why she has no driver’s license, no proof of insurance, nothing at all to verify that she is Penelope Jackson as she first claims, or Heather Bethany, one of the sisters, as she later claims.

But what makes this novel really good is that it is more than just a simple crime novel.  Lippman’s story explores the anguish of the human heart.  Parents who cannot bring closure to what appears to be the death of their children.  Children who are separated from parents and inexplicably may never have tried to escape.  Police investigators who never forget a “cold case”, who understandably cross boundaries of attachment to the parents and the victims, so that the victim’s anguish becomes their own.  And even characters who do not play major roles are well drawn and add to the authenticity of the world and the story Lippman has spun.

There were disconcerting moments for me as I read.  I’m not one for graphic descriptions – not sex, not abuse, not violence.  I don’t gravitate to crime novels that seem to relish relaying such episodes.  Lippman skirts the edges of all three of these.  I get the picture – vaguely – but don’t take away the kind of details that haunt my dreams.

I love mysteries in part because of the endings.  We get answers, now, not in the next life.   But though most of the mystery is clearly revealed, Lippman’s last chapter allows the reader a chance to end the story her way (or his.) A very, very satisfying read!