Well-told mystery, psychological study of loss
One of the joys of being a critic - or a reader, for that matter - is watching the development of an author over time. The goal of every writer should always be to improve. But that's easier said than done, and the results bear this out. A great many authors start out as good as they're ever going to get. While we may continue to enjoy and appreciate their work, they never manage to move beyond where they started.
For a rare few, however, the beginning really is just that: a beginning. Laura Lippman is such a writer. When her first novel, Baltimore Blues, was published in 1997, it was an entertaining private-eye mystery of the type that people had been writing for decades. It was a fine debut, but gave little indication of the superb writer she was going to develop into.
Over the last few years, Lippman has written some of the finest, most powerful novels of anyone in the mystery genre. With her keen and insightful books, Lippman has steadily created a body of work that easily matches that of such celebrated authors as Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos.
Lippman's latest, What the Dead Know, is the story of a family in disintegration, falling apart even before tragedy befalls them. The Bethanys are a typical middle-class family living in Baltimore in the '70s. Their mundane existence is shattered when the two Bethany sisters, Sunny and Heather, make a trip to the mall one Saturday afternoon. They are never heard from again.
As the story opens in the present day, a woman causes a car accident and, in a daze, leaves the scene. When the police find her, she starts babbling about being "one of the Bethany sisters," a crime now so distant in Baltimore's past that the cops don't even know what she's talking about.
There are still a few people around who remember, however, and when the woman claims to be the long-missing Heather Bethany, it sparks interest in her case. Heather hires a big-name attorney and starts negotiating with the police. She'll tell them details from her past, details about her abduction and her sister's murder, if they'll agree not to press charges against her for hit-and-run.
Once Lippman establishes the contemporary thread of the plot, she shifts back to the beginning, interweaving a series of chapters that detail the history of the Bethany girls, their disappearance, and the aftermath of that horrible event. At the same time, the present-day story moves forward as well, gradually revealing the truth of what really happened all those years ago, and its lingering effects on today.
Naturally, Heather's story is met with skepticism. She does little to try to convince the police, either, parceling out details only reluctantly. And even the facts she does share are hardly definitive; it's the kind of information anyone could find with some diligent research.
Once Miriam, the Bethany girls' mother, arrives on the scene, a reckoning is at hand. Surely, she will know beyond any reasonable doubt whether this woman is really her daughter. When the truth is finally revealed, it is so unexpected, yet also so right, so perfect, that it will likely take your breath way.
It's fair to call this a mystery novel, since the heart of the plot does feature a crime and its resulting intrigue, but it is far from the typical whodunit. It is a story of achingly real characters and deep emotional resonance, an intense psychological study of loss.
In the Author's Note that ends the book, Lippman shares that she was inspired by a true case of two girls who went missing in Maryland, a story that had an ending even unhappier than this one. Although she has plucked all the details of What the Dead Know from her own imagination, it has such authenticity that it could easily be mistaken for fact.
Lippman is taking a risk writing books like this, so different from the private-eye mysteries that began her career. Whether her fans will follow her remains to be seen. What is clear is that, by venturing out in such a bold new direction, Lippman has not only expanded the frontiers of genre fiction, she has also enriched the body of American literature.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1, 2007