What the Dead Know (take two)

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?

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11 Responses to What the Dead Know (take two)

  1. litlove says:

    Ah. I bought a cheap Laura Lippman novel a few weeks ago now, having never heard of her before and thinking to give her a try. It wasn’t this one, so I will have to hope it is a bit better! What will your mystery group read next?

  2. Jenny says:

    I’ve been thinking of reading this book, but that “moaned the keening woman” thing is causing me to reconsider. :P

  3. Steph says:

    I remember reading about this book when it first came out and was intrigued by the premise… but then I didn’t hear much else about it, so it fell off my radar. Now, I’m not sure what to think! It sounds like the things that bothered you about this book would also bother me (I also dislike it when crucial info is hidden simply so that readers will be surprised), so I think that while I’m not ruling it out entirely, it’s certainly not a priority book.

    I pretty much never force myself to finish books I’m not enjoying, even for a book club! I figure if I give it a fair shot and it’s really not working for me, well, I can at least tell other people about that!

  4. Priscilla says:

    I actually enjoyed this book, but then I came at it from a very different angle. Except for some Sue Grafton books my mother had loaned me, I probably hadn’t read any mysteries in over twenty years. I bought this and Into the Woods (a far better book) at the same time, but I read this first. Not being well-versed in mystery tropes, I wasn’t bothered by many things that would bug someone who regularly reads all kinds of mysteries. Also, I admit: being a literary fiction snob, I had low expectations of the writing anyway, and was reading for pure entertainment. I actually thought Lippman wrote pretty well–for a mystery writer.

    As far as the moaning/keening woman, I think that Lippman’s editor is as much (if not more) to blame for that. I can see her doing it one way in her manuscript, then changing it but not fully deleting what she had previously, and ending up with that weird combo, which a good editor would have caught immediately. The thing is, I think maybe mystery and romance writers get short-shrift in the editing department, because they (writers, editors, publishers) think readers won’t notice or don’t care. I say all this in her defense because even writing blog posts, I go back and find dumb mistakes that make me cringe, and I know with fiction I am busy thinking about the story, and I am too close to it. That’s why good editors are invaluable.

    Whew…all that said, I read Lipmann’s other non-Tess Monaghan novel (her series, which I have not read but hear good things about) Life Sentences, and it was just okay. I might give one of her series books a try.

  5. softdrink says:

    You’re a brave soul for being willing to read this one again!

  6. Jenny says:

    Litlove — next we’re reading Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder, at my suggestion. Perhaps I should also suggest The Moonstone…?

    Jenny — believe me, that’s not even the most egregious example I could have given!

    Steph — I agree the premise was good. It was the execution that fell down. And I don’t usually force myself to read books I’m not enjoying, either. But perhaps once in a while won’t kill me. :)

    Priscilla — ah, see, when you say she wrote pretty well for a mystery writer, I have to disagree. Try Laurie King, Dorothy Sayers, Kate Atkinson, even (especially early) Robert Parker. Far better. But I do agree about good editing being worth its weight in gold.

    softdrink — Not brave, just stubborn!

  7. Dorothy W. says:

    I listened to this one on audio a while back and felt much the same as you do — it was adequate, but not that great. I didn’t pick up on the writing issues (harder to do when listening), but I just didn’t find it all that engaging. Adequate is a good word for it.

  8. Lesley says:

    This was a timely post for me, as I was thinking of offering this book up (which I haven’t read) as a possible selection for my book club! I think I’ll reconsider …

  9. Jenny says:

    Dorothy — yes, it was good enough (barely) to finish, but it didn’t make me want more.

    Lesley — I’d choose something by Laurie King or Kate Atkinson instead, if I were you!

  10. Jessica Coleman says:

    Bless you, bless you. My book club read this too, and I wasn’t impressed at all. We have two halves, and no matter what we pick, one half loves it and the other half hates it.

    My group agreed in early days not to do mysteries, because we didn’t feel they would generate a very good discussion. That turned out to be true.

  11. rebeccareid says:

    I’m impressed you gave it a go again!

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