Two girls disappear in 1975 and, as expected, their parents never recover from the atrocious experience. One survives, however. Doesn’t live, but survives and does it rather well. Now, Laura Lippman builds a puzzle around events, time, and psychology. It is an ambitious project, often successful, frequently hanging on to dear life. Going back and forth between mom and dad, daughters Sunny and Heather, the cops, the investigation, the suspicions, the love affair that happened, the love affair that could have happened; doing all that is quite a juggling act.
A juggling act filled with interruptions. And these interruptions kill pace and tension more often than not. I am tempted to give up on this novel. As soon as I am engaged in one aspect of the plot Lippman decides to take me elsewhere. Once, okay. Twice, mm. Beyond twice and thrice, grrr! There is no time to like or dislike the characters, or get properly involved in the investigation. What could be a fabulously interesting view becomes a broken window. Shattered glass glued together instead of stained glass re-creating a full picture.
But I hang on. The reason: Lippman is definitely a writer. Her prose can be impeccably appropriate. And when pace finally picks up, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle finally click. But that begins to happen in the second half of the novel, when What the Dead Know finally becomes a suspense novel.
And that’s why I can only give three stars to this piece of fiction, because only half of it really works. And it doesn’t even work up to the end. There are two or three strong moments when Lippman could have concluded her novel. Instead, she lingers and dilutes her sauce, and does it in Mexico—which is not supposed to be a flavorless background. Double-injury here. Did her publisher or agent ask her to produce a certain number of pages? I have read so many genre novels with insipid conclusions that I believe it is a possibility. If this is the case, this demand is not only childish and absurd, it is criminal in the literary sense. It could easily kill a masterpiece. And some still wonder why some decide to become Indie authors.