Friday, November 16, 2007

What The Dead Know by Laura Lippman

When I read mysteries for pleasure I'm extremely bad at guessing the ending / who done it. Even Jodi Picoult? She always surprises me. Gone Baby Gone the movie? I read the book years ago, and I still managed to forget the climatic twist. I remember reading Ruth Francisco's Good Morning, Darkness and being totally shocked by the ending, even though I should have seen it coming. I have a theory that I somehow, subconsciously or something, obfuscate the clues and conventions of the genre, or avoid thinking about them, so I can guard my moment of surprise. Or maybe, deep down, I just want to please. I want to be the perfect reader - that reader who every writer hopes for - who stays in suspense until the writer hands her the story in a neat package. Or maybe I'm just, um, dense.

So when I figured out the mystery to What The Dead Know a whole ten pages (!!) before it's revealed to the reader, I was quite proud of myself. Am I getting better at this?, I wondered. And if so, it that really a reason to celebrate? I do like surprises, after all.

But enough.

In the opening of this book, a woman is in a car accident. When the police come, she refuses to show any identification, and claims to be one of the Bethany girls, who disappeared from the local mall nearly 30 years ago and were never found.

The facts were these: Easter weekend 1975 Sunny Bethany (15) and Heather Bethany (12) took the bus to the mall and never came home. The mystery woman claims to be the younger sister, Heather Bethany, but can offer no proof, only deliberately vague clues. Detective Infante investigates. There are flashbacks.

The novel is narrated from multiple view points, with the mystery woman (we'll call her Heather) being the main character. She's the most fascinating character by far. We know she's lying about some things, but telling the truth about others, but we don't know which is which. Neither do any of the other characters. Her skill as a liar is shown in this scene, where Heather and Kay are late to a meeting with Heather's lawyer, Gloria:

Heather: ""I'll call her on your cell, explain we're running behind." Without waiting for Kay's agreement, Heather grabbed the phone from the cup holder between the seats and used its received-calls log to find Gloria's number.... "Gloria? It's Heather. We're just getting on the road. Kay's ex-husband was late picking up the kids, and we couldn't very well leave them there, could we?" She didn't give Gloria time to reply. "See you in a few." What a brilliant excuse, Kay thought. She pinned it on someone that no one knows, that no one would think to question.

It took a split second, but the larger implications of this observation seemed to vibrate beneath her tires as she merged onto the long, sweeping exit to Security Boulevard."

I especially like this scene because of how it also connects with the title of the book. If you think about it, What the Dead Know is a resonant title for any mystery, but especially this one. Little by little it comes out that "Heather" has gone by many names. Her story is that she was kidnapped that Saturday afternoon at the mall by a former cop, who killed her older sister and kept her as some sort of sex slave. He completely breaks her; convinces her that her parents would never take her back, and eventually she no longer needs to be restrained. The cop finds an alternate identity for her - that of a child whose family all died in a fire - and enrolls her in a parochial school under the name Ruth Leibig. When Heather/Ruth leaves at the age of 18, the cop shows her how to research death records, take names and social security numbers of dead children, and make their identities her own. Heather/Ruth starts over. Many times.

What the Dead Know was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the Year last week. Here's their preamble to the contest:

"Three thousand books are published daily in the U.S., and PW reviewed more than 6,000 of them in 2007, in print and online. From that astounding number, we've culled a best books list covering our favorites in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics, religion, lifestyle and children's—150 in all."

Laura Lippman's in great company, with National Book Award winner Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, and Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, which I haven't read but really want to (the book sounds great and he's Stephen King's son). I'm not sure why What the Dead Know was included in the general fiction category instead of the mystery category (mystery winners include Ruth Rendell and Thomas Cook), and I'm also not sure why it's referred to as a thriller in the logline:


"In this outstanding stand-alone thriller, a driver who flees a car accident breathes new life into a 30-year-old mystery—the disappearance of two young sisters at a shopping mall—when she tells the police she's one of the missing girls."

Not to get overly technical, but I always felt that thrillers need to feature an element of danger as a primary part of the plot. Someone needs to be threatened, or in trouble. People should be dying. There should be a ticking clock. Most of this story takes place in the past. There's no killer on the lose, or threat of a repeat crime. One by one, the villains are revealed to be dead or incapacitated. Personally, I don't think of this as a thriller, but whatever.

This book is definitely worth the read. Heather is a great character, and the mystery kept me wondering and turning the pages, though I bet many readers will guess at the ending rather early in the novel. Even so, the reveal is enormously satisfying, as you look back at everything that happened and think, "of course!" There is a sense of what I like to call inevitable surprise. My only complaint is a minor one - none of the other characters were as compelling as Heather. Her mother, father, and Sunny are extremely well drawn (I ached for Sunny), and Lippman does a great job of conveying the parents' grief, but during the sections that belonged to playboy Detective Infante or Kay the social worker, I found myself getting a bit restless. I wanted to spend all my time with the Bethany family. What the Dead Know is as much a close look at familial relationships and how people grieve as it is a "thriller."

1 comment:

Travis Erwin said...

Sounds like a novel worth checking out. Your review ahs me eager topick it up and find out the truth behind Heather/Ruth/mystery woman.