One 1970's day, Sunny and Heather Bethany ride the bus to the mall to hang out, shop, and maybe watch a movie.
The never come home.
Thirty years later, the police pick up a dazed woman wandering away from an accident scene. She has no identification, no wallet or money. To complicate things even worse, she claims to be Heather Bethany.
So begins Laura Lippman's mystery "What the Dead Know."
We move back and forth through time, seeing the girls and their semi-hippie parents; following "Heather" around through various stops in her life, and joining the Baltimore Police, as they try to unravel the mystery, and figure out just who this woman really is.
"What the Dead Know" is a solid mystery, and fans of the genre will probably enjoy it. I didn't find myself especially invested in the story, though. Part of this, I think, is that few of the characters are especially appealing. "Heather" is obnoxious, and it quickly becomes obvious that she's most likely NOT who she claims to be. The girls' parents divorced soon after their disappearance. Their mother, Miriam, moved away to Texas, then south to Mexico. Essentially, she moved away from the family's tragedy. Dave, the girls' father, was crushed. He stayed in the family home, running his business, hoping against hope that he'd find answers: who did this? Are the girls dead? What happened? Dave is quirky and interesting, but he doesn't figure into much of the narrative.
There's a fine line between enriching a story with details, and going overboard, describing everything to death. I was struck at the perfect balance Ms Lippman achieved. The girls disappeared on a trip to the mall. I could picture the details vividly: it could have been the Sarasota Square Mall of my teenaged years: the food court, the record store, the movie theater, and that omnipresent music store, with the poor guy sitting there playing the organ as shoppers walk past. I had to smile when one of the Baltimore PD detectives visits Brunswick, Georgia, following up a lead. He remarks about how the town "stinks." Literally--smells horrible. There are parts of Georgia along that stretch of I-95 that absolutely reek, if you're downwind from the paper mills.
There is a lot to love about "What the Dead Know." For me, I had a difficult time finding that one character I could care about, thus sucking me into the story. That's how mysteries work best for me: if there''s a cop or a victim I actually care about, then I'm hooked. Then again, that may be a stroke of genius: in real life, people are rarely heroic or noteworthy, and I don't feel tied to most of them. By presenting characters for whom I feel mainly indifference, "What the Dead Know" may be the truest novel ever.