I read about a hundred pages of Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know before I gave up. I’d never heard of her before, but this appears to be my fault: she’s written ten books or so, most of which are P.I. mysteries starring Tess Monaghan and the city of Baltimore. This particular book also takes place in Baltimore, but (as far as I can tell) is a stand-alone, about a cold-case mystery involving two girls who disappeared from a shopping mall thirty years before.
You can tell by the fact that I gave it a hundred pages that it wasn’t bad. Usually, I have a policy that I give a book a trial of no more than ten percent of its total number of pages to see whether it’s worth reading, which for this book would have been about 34. Lippman’s prose is workmanlike, and in places enjoyable, and she has what ought to be an interesting plot: mysterious identity, kidnapping, the works. Yet somehow I couldn’t seem to engage.
The book goes back and forth between time periods and points of view. When done skillfully, this can increase suspense and drive the reader half-crazy with wanting to know the whole picture, not just the parts of it we’re allowed to see. For instance, right now I’m teaching Liaisons dangereuses by Laclos, and the style of the epistolary novel means that each letter shows us a different aspect of the personality and actions of the characters. We never quite feel we know everything we need to, and the reader could completely miss the way Laclos leads us astray, bit by bit, as we read on eagerly to find out what will happen.
Unfortunately, in this case, the technique backfired. Each change of point of view, each switch in time period, just made me forget about the earlier characters and care less what happened to them. When I returned to them, I was more annoyed than excited. And when I’m annoyed, I begin to look for flaws in prose, logic, or character tics. And that never leads to anything good.
So I gave up on it. There would be thousands of people who’d enjoy it, but life’s too short. Onward!