Saturday, October 18, 2008

What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

It felt like cheating in a way to read this book for the notable book challenge. Although I read a lot I do find that "notable" books tend to take longer to read than the genre books I read just for pleasure. This book fit into both categories so it was like a special treat, a guilty pleasure.

Two young sisters, 11 and 15, disappear from the mall in Baltimore on Easter weekend 1975. After intense investigation the case goes cold. No leads. Thirty years later a woman has an accident near the home of the girls and from her hospital bed she confesses to being one of the sisters.

Enter detective Kevin Infante, social worker Kay Sullivan, eccentric lawyer Gloria Bustamante, and the girls' parents. Strangely, though, the woman does not come out and say where she has been all these years. In fact, she refuses to tell anyone the name she uses now.

The woman, who claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger sister, is not just uncooperative. She is cold, withdrawn, even manipulative. She uses the system, the lawyer, and especially the social worker, to avoid going to jail and to draw out her story. She dribbles it out bit by bit, none of it offering much hope of substantiation.

Her behavior and personality frustrate the investigators and make it difficult for the lawyer and social worker to help her. Her odd self-centeredness and refusal to reveal her present name make them all, to different degrees, suspicious. Is she really Heather? If so, why doesn't she tell all? If not, what does she hope to gain?

I was immediately taken by the circumstances and by this woman's unusual personality and story of her kidnapping. The lack of clear details made me want to scream at times. I was by turns a total believer and as suspicious as the detective. The personalities of the other characters are just as interesting, and I regret not being able to follow their lives further - perhaps in other novels?

I was disturbed by the type of police work that was done. I felt a more methodical approach at the very beginning would have unearthed more information than was found (information that was revealed later), and it seemed more could have been done to discover "Heather"'s identity by way of fingerprints, for example. My familiarity with police techniques from crime shows and murder mysteries has made me especially aware of the many leads that can logically be followed. It seems, though, that this novel is more psychological than crime.

An odd bit: throughout the book the word "police" is used as a term for an individual police officer or a synonym. For example, the detective introduces himself as "a police". I have never seen or heard this use of the word before. Is this something Baltimorean, perhaps?

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