Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Some mystery readers and writers make the mistake of treating the genre as a plot-delivery machine, where surprise twists—and obsessive avoidance of spoilers for them—take precedence over the careful development of character and theme. Laura Lippman's novel What The Dead Know is very much an exception, even though it contains a mystery that is genuinely mysterious, with the answers unknown and hard to guess right up to the final pages. In the present day, a woman gets involved in a hit-and-run accident in Baltimore, and in a moment of confusion, she confesses to the police that she's Heather Bethany, one of two sisters who disappeared from a local shopping mall 32 years ago. When her head clears, "Heather" clams up, refusing to say anything about what happened, where she's been, or the fate of her sister. She insists that she has a new identity now, and a quiet life, and doesn't want cable news networks camped on her lawn.

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While the cops investigate whatever tidbits the mystery woman will grant them, Lippman flashes back to that day at the mall and immediately afterward, focusing mainly on the Bethany girls' parents, two trying-to-be-free-spirited early-'70s types whose marriage was cracking even before the disappearance, and who completely fall apart in the wake of it. Lippman also walks through the last couple of decades from the perspective of the woman who claims to be Heather, teasing readers with stories that sometimes support what she says and sometimes refute it, while keeping mum about what happened until she's ready to spill all.

Again, though, What The Dead Know isn't just about finishing a puzzle. Lippman is an excellent writer whose descriptions of marital spats, teen angst, and what 1975 looked and felt like are worthy of any literary novelist. She fumbles a bit when it comes to connecting the modern-day material—concerned mainly with the neuroses of homicide detectives—to the transformative experiences of the Bethany family, and though the mystery fits together neatly, the book's ending isn't as resonant as what comes before. Still, as a study of how people struck by tragedy change and lose connection with who they used to be, What The Dead Know is sure-footed and poignant. It's the kind of book readers will scour for clues, not just to the mystery, but to how we become who we are now.

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