Thursday, July 03, 2008

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW by Laura Lippman

The Book: Laura Lippman, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. William Morrow, 2007 (first edition). Inscribed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

At one point I think I owned four copies of this book, including the advance reading copy; now it's down to two, this hardcover for my collection and a paperback to lend out. It was the best book I read last year, and ranks with the best mysteries I've ever read. This copy was signed at an event at Washington's iconic Politics & Prose bookstore (long may it flourish).

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW is inspired by -- not based on -- the real-life disappearance of two sisters from a Baltimore-area mall on March 25, 1975. No trace of those girls, Shelia and Katherine Lyon, has ever been found. In an Author's Note at the end of the book, Lippman makes clear that the characters in her book have nothing to do with the Lyon family, and the events bear no resemblance to whatever might really have happened.

I got to interview Laura about this book for a Mystery Bookstore podcast, and I keep meaning to transcribe that interview -- for my own benefit, as well as the store's. What interests her as a novelist is not physical violence, but emotional damage, and particularly the terrible things that women can do to each other, sometimes with the best intentions. In Lippman's novels, good people do bad things and bad people do good ones; the line is blurry and constantly moving. The evil in Lippman's world isn't malevolence; it's carelessness, greed, lack of empathy and the desperate desire to avoid consequences. Which I agree with.

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW begins with a car accident on the Beltway. A woman leaves the scene of the accident, and when police find her, she identifies herself as "one of the Bethany girls," who had disappeared 30 years earlier. The Baltimore detectives assigned to the case sense that she is lying, or at least hiding something; they investigate her claims, and bring the Bethany girls' mother up from Mexico to settle the matter once and for all. But nothing here is that simple, and the truth of what happened then and what's happening now unfolds in ways that are by turns tragic, horrifying, and full of grace.

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW is, above all, a book about the complex bonds among sisters and mothers: love, joy, anger, envy, guilt, pride, resentment. My own mother didn't get a chance to read it, but I gave copies to my sisters, my daughter, and several friends who are as close to me as sisters.


Kevin Wignall said...

Good call! I admitted to Laura that she almost lost me early on with this book, in the chapters looking back at the sisters when they were younger (not easy for a man to relate to, particularly a man without sisters!) but the book as a whole works perfectly. And I think Laura's ultimate bravery was in the nature of the crime that's finally revealed (I'm being coy for fear of spoilers, but I'm sure you catch my drift).

norby said...

Laura is a master at writing books about the relationships between females, whether they're young girls, or adults. Reading her books you find yourself alternately understanding the female characters yet actively disliking some of them at the same time.

John Schramm said...

I think I am going to read WTDK again, right now! Nice post, Clair. You expressed well what makes Laura's books great.

Sorry I haven't been by your blog lately. Life is crazy. Hope all is well with you.