The very first book I ever reviewed for this blog was Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know. I really, really didn’t like it. In fact, I disliked it so much that I abandoned it. Imagine starting a blog that way! But I had started Shelf Love to talk about the books I was reading, and that’s what I had out from the library at the time, so that’s what I talked about.
Fast forward a year and a half, and I’m in a different part of the country, and I’ve joined a book club (something for years I swore I’d never do.) It’s a mystery book club. And the first mystery on the list after I join is… What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman. Oh. Oh dear. Well then. Hmmmm. But instead of throwing in the towel immediately and skipping the first meeting, I decide to go ahead and finish the book this time, get all the way through it and find out what happened.
The book is a crime novel, not a murder mystery. It begins with a woman in a car accident who doesn’t seem to be able to provide any evidence of who she is. Then she does something very startling: she claims to be one of two girls who disappeared thirty years earlier from a shopping mall near Baltimore and were never found. The rest of the book weaves between time periods — 1975 and the present, mostly — and points of view: the woman’s, her mother’s, her father’s, her sister’s, a detective’s, a social worker’s, and several others. Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle come into place, and the woman’s identity is revealed, along with the reason why she never came forward in the missing thirty years.
Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that this book was… adequate. The plot was compelling enough, though pieces of it truly bothered me. The motivation of the main character seemed plausible by the end, and there were some interesting insights. However, I don’t like crime novels where crucial pieces of information are kept hidden for no obvious reason — information that should be available to detectives or other characters — only to come out at the Big Reveal, and Lippman did this several times. There was a whole plot line that seemed unnecessary, too, just a long and manipulative way around to say, “We can’t get a DNA match.” There was only one likeable character, though to be fair I find this is more often true in contemporary mysteries than in older ones. And the writing was absolutely painful. (Snapped right in front of me, moaned the keening woman. Well, which was it, moaning or keening?)
In the end, I was glad to discuss the book with my friends, but it’s been a long time since I gritted my teeth and finished a book I disliked. My usual motto is that life is too short and that there are too many wonderful books out there to spend my time that way. Still, there was a certain sense of satisfaction. Have any of you read any Lippman novels I might like better?