What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

I don’t know if this will be Lippman’s “breakout” book. It’s not a thriller, and it doesn’t have any explosions, car chases, or cliff-hangers. It moves rather slowly and takes its time developing its characters, then peeling away everything we thought we knew about them.

This is the third in a masterful set of standalones that examine the effects of crime on those involved – all of them adolescent girls. In Every Secret Thing Lippman drew a taut and trembling relationship between two women who, as girls, killed a baby in what seemed an inexplicable act of horror. In To the Power of Three the police try to figure out what led to a school shooting. (I haven’t read that one yet – much as I’m tempted, I’m worried it will cause painful flashbacks to high school that will be too much for me to handle.) Here, we’re faced with a woman who holds secrets like a poker player, bluffing all the time. She claims to be one of the pair of girls who went missing at the mall in 1975, and she knows enough details to be plausible – yet the police sense something is off in her story. One by one, Lippman deals out the cards in flashbacks, but we are never quite sure which ones are important and how they’ll fit together. Unlike Janet Maslin, I wasn’t at all surprised by the “aha! moment” – but I was interested in seeing the human outlines of the crime slowly emerge.

It’s refreshing to read a work of crime fiction that doesn’t focus on the shock and drama of a crime, but rather on the people whose lives are changed by it, along with all the little things that led up to it. As we read, we piece together many different scenarios, all them dreadful, but in the end the reality of the crime is bluntly ordinary, and all the more tragic for it.

These things happen. And you finish the book sadder and wiser.


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