Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Random Book Review: "What the Dead Know" by Laura Lippman

I came across this novel my accident. I'd seen Eleanor Lippman on an author panel at The "Muse and Marketplace" Conference and had it in mind to read at least something from every author that presented there. So when I saw this audiobook on the library’s scant shelves, I snatched it right up.

But I got the wrong Lippman.

This turned out to be a happy mistake as "What the Dead Know" is crime fiction, a genre I rarely, well-- never-- read and one my plot-challenged little self could learn quite a bit from.

Here's the novel's back of the book blurb:

"Thirty years ago two sisters disappeared from a shopping mall. Their bodies were never found and those familiar with the case have always been tortured by these questions: How do you kidnap two girls? Who—or what—could have lured the two sisters away from a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon without leaving behind a single clue or witness?

Now a clearly disoriented woman involved in a rush-hour hit-and-run claims to be the younger of the long-gone Bethany sisters. But her involuntary admission and subsequent attempt to stonewall investigators only deepens the mystery. Where has she been? Why has she waited so long to come forward? Could her abductor truly be a beloved Baltimore cop? There isn't a shred of evidence to support her story, and every lead she gives the police seems to be another dead end—a dying, incoherent man, a razed house, a missing grave, and a family that disintegrated long ago, torn apart not only by the crime but by the fissures the tragedy revealed in what appeared to be the perfect household.

In a story that moves back and forth across the decades, there is only one person who dares to be skeptical of a woman who wants to claim the identity of one Bethany sister without revealing the fate of the other. Will he be able to discover the truth?"

Intriguing, right?

Even after I realized I had the wrong Lippman, I wanted to read this book.

And I wasn't disappointed. The writing is lovely, clear and detailed. Though not "literary" in its exploration of character, motivation and memory, it did exactly what it needed to do …and with beauty and elegance.

Even more, this novel is a lesson in plot design. There are few details that aren't purposeful. Scenes are constructed; they don't just happen or grow organically in every which way. I was conveyed forward from one point to another with scarcely time to stop and reflect.

I mean, I wanted to KNOW who that darn woman was, what happened to those girls.

Also the setting was marvelous. Lippman’s Baltimore-- in the present and in the 1970's-- is loaded with authentic detail. No doubt she has a strong connection here. To me, Baltimore is the faceless megalopolis we drive through on our way to Florida each winter. But the city, with its quirks and every-changing storefronts is like a another character here.

That said, I didn't care much for most of the actual characters. The handsome male "lead" annoyed the heck out of me. The meek goody-two-shoes social worker and barracuda lawyer where pretty much how you'd expect them. The mystery woman (I won't reveal anything about her) was not particularly likable. But this hardly mattered.

The novel did just what it set out to-- build an intriguing mystery, force the reader to turn pages (or, in my case, drive extra slow to get to the end before I pulled into the driveway at the end of the day.)

Check this one out.

(Please excuse all these crazy font changes. I just can't seem to get Blogger to cooperate!)


Alicia Gregoire said...

I love it when a book is able to show exactly how something is suppposed to be done.

Elizabeth Young said...

Hi Perri, I just did an article about the overuse of You-Tube, but your one hit wonders are the absolute exception to the rule! I'm still bopping with Mungo Jerry. Those sideburns just keep me coming back. Which is all by way of saying, when you were amongst the dead, did you find any more one hit wonders???!!!

Jenny Phresh said...

Ooh this sounds fascinating! I love an accidental discovery.

maryw said...

Me too! The years I was swamped with school and work, I always read the 1st book that caught my attention at the end of a semester. It's how I discovered Grace Paley. The title, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, reached out and grabbed me.