What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

A woman is found wandering along the side of the road, dazed and confused, after a hit and run accident. She tells the police officer at the scene that she is one of the “Bethany girls”, two sisters who disappeared from a shopping mall almost 30 years earlier. But that is virtually all she’ll tell them – she used to be Heather Bethany. She won’t give them any information about the name she’s using now, where she’s living, who kidnapped her, or what she’s been doing for the past 30 years.

Let me say first that I enjoyed this book immensely. I found the story compelling and the mystery plays out very well. Heather gives out information in dribs and drabs, enough to make you want to believe her, but little enough that you wonder if she has the whole story. Some of the tidbits she gives up are impossible to confirm; if they were true, they might prove her story without a shadow of a doubt, but there is no way to know for certain. I like a mystery that engages me and prompts me to spin out alternate scenarios, propose different solutions and wonder what is coming next. In this case, I had figured out a key piece of the story fairly early on, but I had no idea what to do with this information. Definitely a sign of a good mystery.

But (and you knew there would be a “but”) this book requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief. This woman causes an accident that leaves people hospitalized, leaves the scene, tells some improbable story about being a missing kidnap victim…and the police let her go? She refuses to give them a name, she’s driving what appears to be a stolen car, she has no ID and refuses to provide any proof of the kidnapping story, but they are reluctant to keep her in jail, even overnight? I found that impossible to believe. Not quite enough to throw me out of the story entirely, but it was a near thing.

The main character, Heather, is almost completely unlikable. That’s usually a bad sign for a book, but in this case it works. You know that if the story she’s telling is true (and you find yourself wanting to believe it is), then she has been through hell and she’s entitled to a few eccentricities. If it isn’t – and there is certainly evidence that she might be a very talented con artist – then you really want to see her get what’s coming to her. All in all, a satisfying and interesting story.

One side note: Perhaps this is a bit of Baltimore slang I’ve not come across before, but the thing that threatened to pull me out of the story more than anything else was Lippman’s use of “police” as a singular noun, as in “I’m a police” rather than “I’m a police officer.” The main detective on the case doesn’t say he’s a homicide detective, he says he’s a murder police; the retired investigator who worked the original kidnapping says he used to be a police. It was incredibly jarring – as if she had used an improper verb tense throughout the book. I found myself mentally correcting this bit of local slang as I was reading, but it made my inner grammar maven itch every time I saw it. I don’t think something in a novel has ever annoyed me enough to prompt me to write the author about it, but this did. If I get a response, I’ll pass it along.

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