The story begins in the present day with a woman walking away after getting into a car accident. The disoriented woman is soon picked up by the police along a highway. With no ID on her person, she claims to be one of “the Bethany girls”, two adolescent sisters who went missing from the area about 30 years ago. From there an investigation is launched involving the retired detective who was originally assigned to the case, a younger jaded detective, and an empathic social worker, as they try to figure who this mystery woman is. The narrative is interwoven with flashbacks to 1975 which chronicle the days leading up to the girls’ disappearance as well as the disintegrating marriage of the parents. In many ways, the novel shares some similarities to The Lovely Bones, with its themes of familial grief and loss, the major difference being that WtDK has none of that wishful saccharine b.s. that made The Lovely Bones so cringe-worthy.
I don’t think I should go much further about the plot, but I will paraphrase what the NYT wrote:
Laura Lippman’s “What the Dead Know” is an uncommonly clever impostor story, so cagily constructed that it easily fulfills the genre’s two basic demands. First, Ms. Lippman is able to keep her reader guessing about the main character’s disputed identity until the very end of this book. Second, when the revelation comes, it makes perfect sense, and it has been hiding in plain sight. This is not one of those mysteries with a denouement that feels tacked on, half baked or pulled out of thin air.
I think what also elevates WtDK from its genre is the thoughtful attention to detail and well-drawn characters. Lippman did not have to go into how much Kay the social worker loves to read, but in this case, it was a nice touch. Not completely necessary, but still very much appreciated:
She took the coffee to a corner table and settled in with her emergency paperback, this one from her purse. Kay stashed paperbacks in every nook and cranny of her life—purse, office, car, kitchen, bathroom. Five years ago, when the pain of the divorce was fresh and bright, the books had started as a way to distract herself from the fact that she had no life. But over time Kay came to realize that she preferred her books to other people’s company. Reading was not a fallback position for her but an ideal of state of being. At home she had to be hyperconscious not to use books to retreat from her own children. She would put her book aside, trying to watch whatever television program Grace and Seth had chosen… Here at work, where she could have joined any number of colleagues for breaks and lunches, she almost always sat by herself, reading. Coworkers called her the antisocial worker behind her back—or so they thought. For all Kay’s seeming immersion in her books, she missed very little.
There were other nice little pop culture references, like how the Bethany girls snuck into an R-rated screening of Chinatown the day of their disappearance, and how the older sister Sunny loved the Anne of Green Gables books (rather fitting considering we had just visited PEI at the time). I suppose that sometimes it’s these little details that helps to make a novel memorable or not.
Even though Lippman has been writing since the 1990’s, What the Dead Know was her first book that made the NYT bestsellers list. Before that, Lippman was mostly known for her Tess Monaghan series about a Baltimore reporter turned private investigator. It’s funny cuz when I was reading about the Baltimore locales and the confident handling of police procedural in WtDK, I was wondering if Lippman ever wrote for the former HBO series, The Wire. It was only when it came time to write my review did I discover that Lippman is actually married to David Simon! Turns out they also used to work as reporters for the Baltimore Sun. Well, you can’t get any more made for each other than that.
More interesting tidbits gleaned from the Wiki: in episode 8 of the first season of The Wire, Bunk is shown reading one of Lippman’s books. And in the final season, the author has a cameo in the first episode as a reporter working in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. Makes for a great excuse to watch The Wire again!
Here is a very thoughtful review that sums up the novel nicely without revealing too much.