What the Dead Know

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The first of Laura Lippman’s some dozen novels to make The New York Times best seller list, What the Dead Know is an intriguing mystery centered on the disappearance thirty years earlier of two sisters from a Baltimore mall. Sunny and Heather Bethany, aged fifteen and eleven, took the city bus on March 29, 1975, to Security Square Mall, where they were going to shop for a few hours, then be picked up by their father, Daveexcept that they were never seen again.

The novel starts in the present day, as a woman driving a car on the Baltimore Beltway hits an oil patch on the road and causes another car to lose control. As the woman attempts to leave the scene, she is stopped by a police officer. He questions her, but she is injured and apparently disoriented. The car she is driving is registered to a Penelope Jackson of South Carolina, but the woman denies being Penelope. She eventually blurts out that she is one of the Bethany girlsand so the story begins.

The author swerves back and forth between past and present, feeding the reader detailsbut Lippman chooses what to tell, and when. The woman claims to be the younger sister, Heather, who was within a week of her twelfth birthday when she disappeared, but she has no identification and admits that she has assumed many names over the last three decades. She will not provide the one she currently uses, as she has finally achieved a stable career and does not want to endanger it. Because of the possibility that she may be one of the missing girls in a case that was never solved, she avoids jail and instead is placed in the care of a social worker, Kay Sullivan. Kay introduces her to a high-powered defense attorney, Gloria Bustamante, who agrees to take her case.

The mystery woman is hesitant to talk, however, only giving out bits and pieces of information over the next few days, most of which lead nowhere. She claims that a former Baltimore police officer named Stan Dunham abducted the girls from the mall and that he killed Sunny but kept Heather in his Pennsylvania home, sexually abusing her until she turned eighteen. At that point, she says, he put her on a bus and sent her away. Since then, she has roamed from one place to the next, assuming new names and new identities along the way.

Stan Dunham is now senile and living in a nursing home. His wife is dead, as is his only son, Tony. Their house is gone, sold to developers, and so is Sunny’s grave, which Heather claims was on the property. In addition, the girls’ father, Dave, is dead, and their mother, Miriam, has left the country. Penelope Jackson, owner of the car involved in the accident and who, as it turns out, had been living with Tony Dunham, has disappeared. Hence, police officer Kevin Infante keeps running up against brick walls in his investigation. Even the original investigating officer, Chet Willoughby, now retired, is unable to shed any additional light. Instead, he shoots down Infante’s hope of finally resolving the woman’s identity with DNA testing when the girls’ mother is located in Mexico: Chet reveals that he had removed a vital piece of information from the case files years ago in deference to Davethat the girls were, in fact, adopted.

Lippman has done a masterful job of telling this story. Her omniscient narrator takes the reader inside the minds of the characters as well as into the past. As Heather slowly yields information, what she says has the ring of truth, yet there are moments that raise red flags for Infanteand the reader. Lippman drops hints suggesting that not all is as straightforward as it seems: Early on, the woman admits to herself that the tricky part of being Heather was “not knowing what she should know but remembering what she wouldn’t know.” When the police ask whether she saw anyone she knew at the mall that day, Heather says no. The police know that Sunny’s music teacher was playing the organ at the mall’s music store that day, and he claimed he saw her watch him perform. In addition, he claimed that a man grabbed Heather from behind and spoke to her angrily, but upon seeing her face, appeared to realize he had made a mistake and subsequently left. Heather makes no mention of any of this. Also, Heather had had a large sum of money saved that was gone from her room when the police searched...

(The entire section is 1770 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 13 (March 1, 2007): 68-69.

Library Journal 132, no. 5 (March 15, 2007): 61.

The New York Times 156 (April 5, 2007): E9.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 4 (January 22, 2007): 156.

School Library Journal 53, no. 5 (May, 2007): 174.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 8, 2007, p. 23.