Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know
Avon-Harper Collins, 2007

I’d seen Laura Lippman’s novels around, but Pickle Me This’s review made me want to read one. Afterwards, I saw three of them at the library, but I wasn’t sure where to start, so I just picked up something I was sure about instead. It wasn’t until I had a copy of What the Dead Know in my hand that I decided to get serious.

But the booksnob in me still doubted (because of the “New York Times Bestseller” banner across the front, the length of the “Also by Laura Lippman” page inside the front cover, and the uber-glossy author photo inside the back cover). You know what I mean?

But the cover blurb did say “Lippman has not only expanded the frontiers of genre fiction, she has enriched literature as a whole”. So finally I took the book out to the porch, with two “should reads”, which instantly transformed Lippman’s novel into the Most Interesting Book Ever. You know how that goes.

From here the process speeds ahead until I finished reading the novel, because after the first chapter (only ten pages), I was hooked.

Yup, hooked.

Below is what hooked Laura Lippman on telling this story; it’s pulled from “Initial Shivers” which appears at the back of this Harper-Collins paperback; it’s not on her website, but other essays there do give an idea of the author’s personality, her curiosity and motivation as a story-teller.

“The year I turned sixteen, a poster went up in the sandwich shop near my high school. It asked for information about two sisters, Sheila and Katherine Lyon, missing from a suburb one county over. They had last been seen near a shopping center not far from their home. With their straight blonde hair, parted down the middle in the fashion of the day, and their sweet smiling faces, they could have been part of the Brady Bunch. The poster caught my attention because such crimes are rare in the suburbs. Plus, there was the odd fact that there were two of them.”

Although this true story did inspire her to write the novel, however, she deliberately did not research this 1975 disappearance because she did not want to tell the Lyon sisters’ story. She acknowledges the debt of inspiration, but declares that this novel has nothing to do with that case. “Yet the novel also asks readers to remember that there are thousands of people who go through their day-in, day-out lives without knowing what has happened to loved ones, whether missing or murdered.”

And this is the central question behind What the Dead Know: what happened to Sunny and Heather Bethany.

So you know it’s a thriller. So you know that I can’t say much more about the plot. After all, whether it’s Mary Elizabeth Braddon or P.D. James, nobody wants a mystery spoiled.

But I will discuss characterization and setting because I do think there’s something distinctive, something satisfying, about Laura Lippman’s thriller, and the way she deals with these elements in What the Dead Know is at the heart of that.

In “Initial Shivers”, Laura Lippman explains that she used her personal experience growing up in the 70s to sketch the Bethany sisters’ lives. “In short: There’s far more Lippman than Lyon in these pages.” This adds another dimension to the setting and it felt real and natural. Most thrillers don’t bother much with these details, so What the Dead Know stands out there.

In terms of characterization, I was less certain initially; I was struck by what seemed to be rapidly sketched, verging-on-type descriptions.

Infante, detective:
“There had been a gaggle of girls at the end of the bar, and although he’d told himself that he was just coming in for a quick drink, he soon felt compelled to cull one from the herd. He hadn’t gotten the best one, but the one he had gotten had been pretty good.”

Kay, social worker:
“Reading was not a fallback position for her but an ideal 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, all the while casting longing glances at the volume so near to hand.”

Gloria, lawyer:
“Bustamante was her usual wreck of a self — lipstick in and out of the natural line of mouth, suit missing a button. Her shoes, expensive ones once upon a time, were scuffed and banged up on the toes, as if she’d been kicking something very hard over and over again. Probably a detective’s shin.”

It all feels short-hand-ish, doesn’t it?

But, to be fair, all of these are drawn from the first thirty pages of a novel which stretches to nearly 400 pages long, in which some of the characters are afforded more complexity.

I give some slack in thrillers and mysteries, simply because I love a good story, but even though some of Laura Lippman’s characters seemed to start in stereotypes (sometimes lazy ones at that), over time she got me to care about them anyway. And the background offered on some characters, that some readers might have considered incidental to the story, was particularly satisfying because I did want to know more.

The story kept me fully engaged throughout, and I simply wanted to know what was going to happen next in What the Dead Know; it became my porch read of choice even when I left the “should reads” in the house and it was competing with other entertaining novels.

Ultimately Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know reads with the tight pacing of Linwood Barclay’s or Joy Fielding’s thrillers, but with more detail about setting and character and background. I didn’t feel as though I had to check my reader’s requirements at the first page just to have a good summer romp in the genre, and I’m adding her to my mental list which includes Jodie Picoult and Anita Shreve: best-selling writers who don’t necessarily cut corners to tell a good story.

Have you read Laura Lippman before? do you want to now?