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A Virtuoso Reappearing Act

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com, is the author of "The Triumph of the Thriller"
Monday, March 19, 2007

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW

By Laura Lippman

Morrow. 376 pp. $24.95

Awoman of about 40 is involved in an auto accident outside Baltimore. When police demand identification, she has none. Pressed, she claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger of two sisters, ages 11 and 15, who vanished from a Baltimore shopping mall 30 years earlier. The woman won't give details ("I don't want to be the freak of the week on all those news channels"), and the police are skeptical of her story. Neither they, nor we, know if the woman is telling the truth, lying or delusional. Thus begins Laura Lippman's hypnotic "What the Dead Know."

In an author's note, Lippman explains that the idea for this novel came to her two years ago, when she and some friends drove past Wheaton Plaza and conversation stopped because they all remembered the case of sisters Sheila and Katherine Lyon, who disappeared there in 1975. She is quick to add that her fictional Bethany family is nothing at all like the Lyons. "What the Dead Know" is, in fact, a remarkable feat of the imagination. It contains echoes of other recent novels -- Dennis Lehane's "Shutter Island," with its narrator who may or may not be reliable; Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," with its story of a girl's murder; and Martha Grimes's "The Old Wine Shades," with its murder that may never have happened -- but surpasses them all in its ambition and depth.

Lippman's plot taps into powerful emotions. The very uncertainty that is so awful for the parents is what makes the novel so gripping for readers. What happened to the girls? If the woman is Heather, why has she not come forward in 30 years? Where is the other sister, Sunny? The woman knows a great deal about Heather, but there are also hints that she's lying, along with tantalizing glimpses of the ordeal she claims to have endured. The present-day investigation alternates with flashbacks to the Bethanys' life before and after the girls vanished. As the book nears its end, the reader can imagine all sorts of outcomes -- and, happily, the one that Lippman provides is a good one.

If it is the plot that hooks us, the novel is most impressive for its characterizations, its rich details and the quality of the writing. Lippman can be funny, raunchy and caustic when she chooses, but she also can take us, with rare sensitivity, inside the hearts of all four members of this troubled family. For much of the book, we see what the uncertainty about the girls does to their parents, Miriam and Dave. As time passes, they must assume that their daughters are dead, even as they fear they may still be prisoners in some cellar or brothel, and as they also indulge in fantasies that somehow the girls are somewhere safe and happy. ("A kindly family in the Peace Corps, who whisked them off to Africa.") Despite moments of comedy, this is overwhelmingly a story of pain and loss. Miriam, when first seen, is having an affair because she's bored with Dave, a failed businessman who imagines himself an artist. Their marriage does not survive the girls' disappearance, and we follow Miriam as she tries to escape the horror her life has become. After moving to Texas and then Mexico, and retaking her maiden name, she is finally anonymous, "allowed the luxury of not being the martyred mother, poor sad Miriam Bethany . . . allowed to move through her days without tragedy tugging visibly at everything she did." Then, after 30 years, she receives a call to return to Baltimore and confront the woman who claims to be her daughter.

As for the woman who claims to be Heather, in one of several glimpses into her captivity she reports that, at age 12, after her abduction, she was permitted to attend a birthday party at which the kids played the kissing game Five Minutes in Heaven. She describes those five minutes in a closet, awkwardly kissing some surly boy, and then adds that she was the only one of the children who would return home that night to have "full-out intercourse in a feather bed." It's a poignant story -- but we don't know if it's true and won't until the final pages of the novel. And here is Dave, the father, who still receives agonizing calls from cranks who claim to have information about the girls: "His past was like riding a monster with a lashing tail. He clung to it reluctantly, knowing that he would be crushed by its heedless feet if he ever relinquished his grip." Often, amid the pain, Lippman diverts us with amusing digressions, like this one about the arrival of telephone answering machines 20 years ago: "It turned out that the United States was a desperately lonely place, where everyone had been worrying that a single missed phone call might change one's destiny." It was Lippman's destiny to drive past that shopping plaza and write this novel. If you only know her from her Tess Monaghan series, or if you don't know her work at all, read "What the Dead Know." It's an all but flawless performance by a writer at the peak of her powers.

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