Thirty years ago two sisters disappeared from a shopping mall. Their bodies were never found and those familiar with the case have always been tortured by these questions: How do you kidnap two girls? Who—or what—could have lured the two sisters away from a busy mall on a Saturday afternoon without leaving behind a single clue or witness?
Now a clearly disoriented woman involved in a rush-hour hit-and-run claims to be the younger of the long-gone Bethany sisters. But her involuntary admission and subsequent attempt to stonewall investigators only deepens the mystery. Where has she been? Why has she waited so long to come forward? Could her abductor truly be a beloved Baltimore cop? There isn’t a shred of evidence to support her story, and every lead she gives the police seems to be another dead end—a dying, incoherent man, a razed house, a missing grave, and a family that disintegrated long ago, torn apart not only by the crime but by the fissures the tragedy revealed in what appeared to be the perfect household.
In a story that moves back and forth across the decades, there is only one person who dares to be skeptical of a woman who wants to claim the identity of one Bethany sister without revealing the fate of the other. Will he be able to discover the truth?
In many ways What the Dead Know is a tour-de-force of story telling whose only serviceable comparison is the tapestry of bullshit, truth & wonder that Verbal Kint weaves in the movie The Usual Suspects. To extend the comparison just one step further if the central question of the movie was ‘Who is Keyser Soze’? Then the central question of What the Dead Know is ‘Who is Heather Bethany’? It’s exactly this question that Lippman will answer for us over the course of 384 masterfully controlled and written pages.
The story is crafted in such a way so that it leap-frogs back and forth in time. This serves two purposes and executes both beautifully. First it allows Lippman to pick and choose which bits of information to give us and when to give them to us. The bits of information quickly become a potent mix of hints and red-herrings that will form a literary bread crumb trail. Second, and perhaps more importantly it will allow for a careful dissection and examination of the events and the relationships surrounding them.
One aspect that Lippman spends a lengthy amount of time examining is the effect that a crime of this magnitude has on the family and those involved. With the deepening of the character study of the parents we find ourselves presented with two very divergent paths of grief. One is not presented as right or wrong, one doesn’t provide a greater sense of closure, if indeed such a thing even exists, but they both are presented a true and viable. It’s easy enough to see yourself in either of the parent’s shoes in the aftermath of the crime and because of this both parents are greatly humanized. They may have their flaws but they most assuredly have our sympathy.
More so then the final revelation the greatest reveal in the book actually comes a little over half-way through the book. It was such a bombshell that my reading came to a grinding halt as the wheels came off the train. I found myself reading and re-reading that particular page a few times just to try and process the information. With such a big reveal happening relatively early on, the book ends more with a whisper then a bang. In fact the very ending of the book and that central question of ‘Who is Heather Bethany’ is actually guessable. But the ending is the best ending for this book as it flows naturally and unfolds organically. Most important of all though, and thanks to the deep characterizations, this isn’t a one dimensional novel that hinges on its ending. It would stand up to a further re-read and will ultimately hold up well.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call What the Dead Know a “fair play” mystery but there is more then enough information to actively participate in the investigation of Heather Bethany. Det. Kevin Infante may be the primary on the case but Lippman encourages us to be the secondary.
Lippman acknowledges that the book uses as its genesis a true case of sisters that went missing in Maryland in 1975 though it needs to be said that it is there that the similarities end. In the book, as the linear time line progresses and the Bethany case continues to remain unsolved, other famous real-life missing children cases are mentioned, specifically those of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh. Two names and two cases that resonate with people to this day and more importantly streamlined and nationalized the process of working these types of cases. In effect Lippman seems to be pointing out that while we have come a long way since 1975 it is sadder still that we have had to make just such a progression.
The greatest trick Heather ever pulled was letting the world believe that she didn’t exist.