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by Laura Lippman
William Morrow, March 2007
384 pages
ISBN: 0061128856

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Heather Bethany and her sister Sonny disappeared in a Baltimore shopping mall. Thirty years later, a woman is involved in a car accident. When she is questioned in hospital by police, she claims to be Heather.

And really, that's about it. For the next 380 pages, the action flip-flops back between the present, where detective Kevin Infante is trying to find out whether the mystery woman is telling the truth, how the girls disappeared, and all points in between. But the woman's story appears to be full of holes, as he is sent down countless dead ends.

The story is told from a number of points of view, including Infante, the girls' mother Miriam, their father Dave, the detective who originally investigated the case, hospital social worker Kay Sullivan and probably others I've forgotten.

And thereby hangs the book's main problem. You never spend enough time with any character in any of the time frames to get to know them well and to empathise with them or get inside their head.

The constant cross-cutting of time frames isn't helpful either as it breaks up the flow of the book and is, at times, confusing. I did a lot of flipping backwards and forwards to double-check where I was and to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW weighs in at a hefty 380-something pages and could easily have lost 100 of those. The book drifts badly and Lippman spends too much time allowing her characters to muse to themselves. It lacks the spark and humanity of her PI Tess Monaghan series and the quiet suburban menace and focus of standalone EVERY SECRET THING.

I did wonder at times whether Lippman was trying to push the boundaries of genre fiction as really there's not a great deal of mystery or suspense in the book. If she was, I don't think it worked, particularly as it's difficult to summon much enthusiasm for the characters, and the plot isn't that fresh. It's definitely a character-driven book. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if that approach is to work, you have to feel closer to those involved than I did in WHAT THE DEAD KNOW.

What bothered me all through was why the cops didn't fingerprint the mystery woman at the start after all, she'd fled the scene of a road accident. Presumably, though, this would have shot the whole book out of the water!

This was a book I wanted to like, as the idea of getting deep inside the characters' heads appealed to me. It promised much, but turned into a huge anti-climax. To be quite honest, I was bored with chunks of WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and I never thought I'd say that of a Laura Lippman book.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, March 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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