What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman

October 3, 2007 at 12:49 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

whatdeadknow.jpg laura.jpg In March of 1975, two sisters, Katherine and Sheila Lyon, age 10 and 12 respectively, went to Wheaton Plaza Shopping Center. (Wheaton is located in Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C.) They never returned. Although their disappearance triggered a huge investigation accompanied by massive publicity, they were never seen again. The mystery of their disappearance has never been solved.

No one who was living in this area at the time has forgotten this case. And now Laura Lippman has used it as the springboard for her latest novel, What the Dead Know. Like the Lyon sisters, Heather and Sunny Bethany (depicted here as being somewhat older than the Lyon sisters) go to the mall – in this case, Security Square Mall in Baltimore County – and never return home. The novel does not, however, begin with this incident. Rather, it begins in the present with the appearance of a woman in her early forties who claims to be Heather Bethany. Although she is in possession of many facts concerning the case of the missing sisters, there is something in her demeanor that causes Officer Kevin Infante and his team of investigators to doubt her veracity. But even if she is not who she says she is, she might have crucial knowledge of what actually happened to the Bethany sisters. And if she is not Heather Bethany – who is she?

The Bethany girls were deeply loved by their parents, but by the mid-1970’s, Miriam and Dave Bethany were experiencing serious problems in their marriage. By pursuing his dream of owning a shop that sells distinctive craft items, Dave, a gentle soul still in thrall to his youthful hippie aspirations, has brought the family close to ruin. In order to bolster their precarious financial position, Miriam has gone to work as a real estate agent. She is also in the midst of a torrid affair. All of this family business suddenly becomes the public’s business as the crisis engendered by the disappearance of Sunny and Heather becomes front page news.

My only caveat concerning What the Dead Know has to do with Lippman’s use of flashback narration. The novel’s time frame oscillates between the mid-1970’s and the present, with some time spent also in the late 1980’s. The author has her reasons for doing this, but the technique requires close attention from the reader. Otherwise, I have only the highest praise for this book. Most of us cannot imagine the Hell into which this kind of sudden, inexplicable calamity can plunge a family. Lippman has imagined it for us, and in the process has recreated an excruciating experience in a way that I found entirely convincing. What the Dead Know is much more than a whodunnit: it is a beautifully written, deeply affecting meditation on love and loss.


  1. Summer reading list, 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] own suggestions have already appeared in these pages: The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson, What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman, Never Enough by Joe McGinniss, The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister, The Fall of Troy by […]

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    […] so little time). This book was nominated for an Anthony but lost to Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know. Lippman’s novel was outstanding, to be sure, but in this contest,  I was rooting for […]

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    […] fact, a woman arrived on the scene claiming to be one of  the sisters? Thus was the seed sown for What the Dead Know (2007), winner of numerous awards and one of the most gripping crime novels I have ever […]

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