Click here to read reviewer Niki Schoenfeldt's take on What the Dead Know.
Thirty years ago, Heather and Sunny Bethany disappeared from a mall in Baltimore. Their bodies were never found, and the mystery of what happened to the two young sisters has haunted not only their parents but also the police who worked on the case. The girls’ parents split up; eventually their father commits suicide and their mother moves to Mexico, haunted not only by the disappearance of her daughters but also by the fact that she was in the midst of an affair when her girls were taken, and she cannot escape her sense of guilt.
Most people in Baltimore have forgotten about the Bethany case after 30 years—that is, until a woman is involved in a car accident and flees. When she is confronted by police, she claims to be the long-thought-dead Heather Bethany, and the case comes back to the forefront. Lawyers and social workers become involved, as well as the retired detective who originally worked the case and who still can’t get it out of his head. But is this woman really the vanished girl? And if she is, where has she been for 30 years?
Laura Lippman does an excellent job of exploring this complicated story in her newest book, What the Dead Know. By jumping between the present time, 30 years prior before the girls disappeared, and different times in between, she presents a well-rounded, complex novel that introduces the reader to a number of characters who will be important to the case. It’s easy to see how so many lives could have been touched by the girls’ disappearance, and Lippman is conscientious about tying up all her loose ends and leaving the reader with a feeling of satisfaction at the conclusion of her tale.
What Lippman is not so successful at is presenting likable or sympathetic characters. You would think it would be easy to feel affection - or at least sympathy - for two innocent girls or their parents who are destroyed by their disappearance. Unfortunately, the girls come off as petulant, the mother cold and distant, and the father just strange. In the present time, ‘Heather’ is selfish and odd, and none of the other characters do anything to endear themselves to the reader. The only character who is even slightly likeable is the lead detective, and even he is a hard pill to swallow. Lippman’s book would have been more interesting and memorable if there were at least one character to whom the reader could form an attachment.
What the Dead Know features a well-written storyline and you’ll want to read to the conclusion to find out how the mystery ends. However, the lack of likeable characters makes it an only mediocre read, and it will likely be quickly forgotten after the last page is turned.