In the mid-1970s two young sisters disappeared from a suburban shopping mall. Their bodies were never found, and the case has remained unsolved. There are no more leads worth following anymore, and most of the people who were around at the time of the disappearance have either died or moved far away. However, all this changes in a matter of a few seconds late one cold March evening on the outskirts of Baltimore.
Laura Lippman's newest novel, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, is a thrilling, nonstop mixture of crime, suspense, mystery and confusion that slowly but accurately pieces together what happened to those girls so many years ago. The story begins in the present day --- with a hit-and-run car crash in the first three pages of the book --- and never stops unfolding from that point on. The woman who causes the accident is caught by the police and admitted to St. Agnes Hospital, yet she refuses to give her name.
By the luck of the draw, Detective Kevin Infante is sent to question her. The meeting turns confrontational, with the mystery woman demanding a lawyer rather than giving away her identity. It is only later, through a friendly hospital worker, that she reveals her name: Heather Bethany, the elder of the two sisters who disappeared over 30 years ago. Or is she?
While some are willing and excited to accept this woman as the missing Heather and show compassion for the tragic events that occurred over the years --- including the possible involvement of one of the city's most beloved police officers, murder and sexual abuse --- Detective Infante is not quite so enthusiastic or believing. He keeps finding holes and dead-ends in her story. Even using the fading memory of the girl's mother proves to be less than valuable. So the mystery remains: What really happened to Heather and her older sister Sunny --- and who is this woman? Is there a connection? Through methodical and careful police work, Detective Infante plans to find out.
Competently jumping between the events of the disappearances to the confusions of present day, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW lays down clues throughout the book so that readers should see the ending before it arrives. But, as in every great mystery, they won't. With this novel, Lippman has shown once again why she wins countless awards for her consummate writing and satisfies eager fans with every new release.
WHAT THE DEAD KNOW employs a storytelling technique not far removed from the one that famed film director Akira Kurosawa used almost 60 years ago in his masterpiece, Rashomon. In both that movie and here, a heinous crime and the tribulations that follow are recalled from differing points of view. The book unfolds through the devil-may-care investigative techniques of Detective Infante, the always-believing hospital worker, Kay Sullivan, and the bizarre events told by the seemingly crazed woman who claims to be Heather Bethany. It is up to the reader to piece the disjointed stories together and accept or reject each tidbit of evidence as it is presented.
This is a well-crafted gripper that will keep readers wondering, thinking and looking back to see how the pieces might fit together.
Reviewed by Simon King on March 1, 2007