Hey, I just read another really good book. It’s called What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. From the very beginning I was blown away – it’s the American equivalent of a Ruth Rendell book in its penetrating psychology, mordant wit, perspicacious view of modern life and expert mystery plot, which was, as it should be, surprising and inevitable at the same time. Since I think that Rendell is not just one of the finest mystery writers but one of the finest writers in the world period that’s no small praise.
Like Rendell’s best books (many of which are written under the name Barbara Vine) What the Dead Know is a stand alone rather than a series book. It centers on that great old mystery trope of Brat Farrar and countless others – is the adult who appears out of nowhere really the grown up version of the child who disappeared so mysteriously years ago or an imposter? In the end the theme is simply identity, and Lippman explores it masterfully, moving through the consciousness of many characters (thankfully in the third person), slipping through time and space to construct a moving picture of our time. I’ll gleefully point out that Lippman is no product of an academic MFA program, but learned her craft the old fashioned way (you know like that Hemingway guy) as a reporter.
It was also very encouraging to see that this book entered the NYT bestseller list at #11, statistically indistinguishable from #10 (the detestable Mitch Albom), which (almost) restores my faith in the American reading public. I’m not going to go on and on about it, except to recommend it most highly. It certainly blows away most of the "serious" fiction that’s out there these days, suspenseful while remaining profound and engaging. Lippman’s prose is not really lyrical, the kind that makes me want to copy down long passages, but it’s not clunky either, and rather unobtrusively expresses everything she has to say. This is one passage that really stayed with me in its penetrating insight and depth of imagination, all encapsulated in small detail:
Overall the girls’ rooms remained as they had been, although Miriam had finally broken down and washed the linens, making the beds that had been tumbled and tossed, in Heather’s case, smooth and wrinkled in Sunny’s case. Each girl had used her own sleeping style to argue against bed making. "I’m just going to mess it up again," Heather said. "You can barely tell I’ve been in it," Sunny said.
(In the interest of total transparency I must reveal that Laura Lippman once stole some Fig Newtons from me, but that act did not influence this review in any way).