Title: What the Dead Know
Author: Laura Lippman
First Published: March 2007
Publisher: William Morrow
Source: Library | This book was referred to me by a friend in a Goodreads group
In a nutshell
Two sisters, Sunny and Heather Bethany, ages fifteen and eleven, disappeared from a shopping mall. They never returned, their bodies were never found, no calls for ransom came in. Now, thirty years later, a woman has appeared claiming to be Heather Bethany. She had just been in an accident and in the consequent delirious state, she claims to know something about the disappearance of the Bethany sisters. Soon as she lets that slip, she clams up. Is she just being delusional or telling the truth?
What the Dead Know has some very vivid characters. I could almost love or hate some of the characters strongly. The woman-in-accident was a vibrant character, who I hated from page one. That's saying something since a major chunk of the book is from her perspective or focuses heavily on her. I do believe that Laura Lippman dressed the woman-in-accident in a persona that will be disliked by the reader, for reasons you will understand on reading the book. That was a clever ploy and served to both giving a convincing touch to the woman-in-accident's claims and also building an initial bias within the reader (Something to be careful about!).
Dave, the father of the two sisters, was a person who insisted on openness and sharing within families. His grief when the girls disappear is so palpable you could feel it through the pages. Till the day he died, he kept hoping for them to turn up. Miriam, his ex-wife and the two girls' mother, gave up on hope instead, so that she could grieve. It was interesting following her life, but for the most part, I was unimpressed. She always struck me as a mild woman. Probably the girls' disappearance changed her, but the hardening of her character didn't really convince me.
Also, am I being bad if I said that I totally disliked the eleven-year old child Heather for her "manipulative"ness?
The prose switches between the present and the past (from the day of the girl's disappearance to the day the father died). The narration of the past introduces way too many details, which I didn't appreciate initially. But once the mystery was solved, what I was especially fascinated by was how many countless chips came together to bring about the disappearance. Now I wouldn't call that coincidence at all, because it wasn't. But there were several ordinary everyday events that one day led to something extra-ordinary. I applaud how these seemingly irrelevant matters were suddenly made significant in the light of the girls' disappearance, without feeling contrived.
When the revelations started coming out, I can't say that I totally bought what happened during the sisters' disappearance. From that point on, it didn't really strike me as convincing. Nevertheless, it was a well-thought out and intricate plot that had me wanting for answers.
That said, I didn't love the book. I found it too wordy and rambling, so much so that at one point I stopped caring about what happened to the characters and just wanted to get to the end of things. That's never a good thing. I usually appreciate the verbose kind of writing, anything that lets me understand the characters and their situations better is always welcome. Somehow, I felt that there was an excessive amount of that in What the Dead Know.
Till the end of the book or rather near-end, I was in the dark with regards to what this title meant. When someone comes up saying she personally knows something about a thirty-year old case, the biggest challenge is finding eye-witnesses, ALIVE, to corroborate. In this case, they are dead or mentally ill. The eye-witnesses need not be directly connected to the disappearance, they can be witnesses along the thirty-year journey as well. But when all the leads turn to dead-ends, it almost becomes a case where only the dead know what happened. (Luckily for you and me, there was one never-considered witness who saves things for us.)
I liked this cover, though I can't say I really felt a connection between it and the plot. Going in alive and coming back dead is quite the antithesis of what really happens.
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