Written by Laura Lippman — This book comes from American author Laura Lippman – a newspaper reporter turned detective fiction writer. She was raised in Baltimore, a city with a strong connection to Edgar Allen Poe, arguably the inventor of the genre we enjoy so much. This city provides the back drop to many of her novels.
Lippman’s writing is often inspired by true life crimes from her home town. What the Dead Know is no exception. Two young sisters go missing from a shopping mall in downtown Baltimore in 1975, never to be seen again. With no bodies ever found, it is a complete mystery to both the police and the family; in time they are presumed dead. This is where fact and fiction part. The novel opens 30 years later with a hit and run car accident. The woman driver involved in the crash flees the scene but is picked up and taken to ER by a patrol car as she staggers wounded some way from the crash site. When asked her identity she drops her bomb shell: she is one of the missing Bethany sisters.
Detective Kevin Infante questions the authenticity of her claim – why did she take 30 years to reveal herself? She seems to know so many details of the case yet withholds what exactly happened to her and her sister and what she has been doing all these years. All the leads she provides turn out to be dead ends. Could she be a clever fake using the Bethany case as a decoy from another crime? The narrative keeps you guessing right up to the end. The clues of course are laid down early on, but become obscured in the detail of subsequent chapters.
The back story goes into a lot of depth, some of which seems irrelevant and unnecessary, especially with regard to the parents’ marriage. At times it was easy to forget I was reading a crime novel. Perhaps this was intended as a device to divert the reader and add to the mystery, but actually it is tangential and results in an uneven pace to the book. The story would also benefit from a deeper characterisation of the young Bethany sisters which would provide a more convincing conclusion to this mystery.
However despite its flaws What the Dead Know makes an intriguing read. The best thing about this book is the parallels to real life disappearances. The author cites the inspiration for the book in the disappearance of the Lyons sisters, yet the disappearance of young girls is not altogether uncommon. It had me thinking of the Madeline McCann and Josef Fritzl cases. Though these are quite different to the novel the story deals with issues surrounding abduction, imprisonment, sexual slavery and murder.
It is surely an agony to lose a child but to never to know what happened would be an unbearable torture. The book explores the parental and police response to the tragic disappearances and alleged reappearance. Is it your duty to keep all hope even when met with nothing but dead ends? Do you dare to continue to believe they are still alive or betray them by giving them up for dead and moving on with life? I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the emotions and issues surrounding child abductions and disappearances.
CFL Rating: 4 stars