Thursday, October 21, 2010

What the Dead Know is Sufficiently Creepy for a Fall Read

Tess Monoghan, exceptionally-skilled private eye, stars in Laura Lippman's bestselling mystery series set in Baltimore. In addition to her success with Tess, Lippman has branched out from that series in the past several years to write several well-written standalone novels that rival her own series. I have recently become obsessed with reading everything Lippman has ever written (I read her Tess Monoghan series years ago, so I've already devoured it); I started with this one, and have quickly moved to the others. Currently, I'm reading To the Power of Three, but my first Lippman standalone was What the Dead Know.

In 2007's What the Dead Know, a woman flees the scene of a automobile accident on a highway in Baltimore. After she is picked up walking along the side of the highway, she claims to be one of a pair of long-lost sisters -- the Bethany girls, missing since 1975. Sunny and Heather Bethany went to the local mall one Saturday all those years ago and never returned home. Their disappearance rocked the Baltimore public and literally wrecked their family; their parents divorced in the years after they were gone, and their father committed suicide rather than deal with his own guilt. Now it seems that at long last, the city may find out what happened on that fateful day.

Social worker Kay Sullivan and police officers Kevin Infante and Nancy Porter work around the clock to find out whether or not the hospitalized woman is actually Heather Bethany. Along the way, readers meet the girls' mother, now living in Mexico. Additionally, Lippman takes readers back in time through flashbacks both of the girls themselves and of the initial investigation after their disappearance. In examining the mystery at hand, new things come to light about the 1975 crime that will shock even the most well-read mystery lover.

Lippman has a way of telling a story that is unique; rather than writing simple whodunits, she creates a larger story that gives details unnecessary to the mystery at hand, but that reflects both the good and bad sides of human nature. Her characters are never static, but instead are dynamic individuals with positive and negative characteristics. It is possible for readers to be both appalled by and empathetic to Lippman's characters and their behavior. As in real life, little is ever black and white; Lippman seems to revel in that fact and exploit it in her writing. The gray areas are her specialty, and What the Dead Know is a perfect example of her exceptional story-weaving skills.

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