Sunday, February 21, 2010

What the Dead Know, and You Should, Too

'Tis the season when I read books. No picture books, that is. Not that I don't like to read books at other times of the year, but at Christmas I tend to get either books or gift cards to book stores from various people. This year was actually a little light, as I got no books and only one gift card.

Of course, I don't live around the corner from the Barnes and Noble, so it takes a few weeks before I'm in the area and stop in, then a little longer after that to read any books purchased, what with the comics, newspapers, and magazines that I read, in between the usual life stuff of wife, kids, exercise, work, and TV. But, I've finally read one of the two books purchased. The actual reading only took a few days, even with the life stuff, because it's the kind of book you make the time to read.

Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know is not the first of her books I've perused. Actually, her books aren't her first writings I read because she started out, in my orbit, as a writer for the Baltimore Sun, back when it was actually a newspaper and not its current sham of a USA Today bastard step-child. But that's a topic for another day, and fewer mixed modifiers.

Lippman's initial books were the Tess Monaghan series of mysteries. Those were hewing closely to what she knew, starring a former newspaper reporter come PI in a time of newspaper staffing cut backs. They were also set in Baltimore and its environs, with one foray I recall to Austin, TX, where Lippman had also worked as a reporter. What the Dead Know also sticks to familiar grounds for Lippman. Again set primarily in Baltimore, with some DC and Northern Virginia thrown in for good measure, as well as some Austin scenes, Lippman has added Brunswick, GA and Mexico, locales to which she also has ties.

Locational similarities are the only similarities to the Tess Monaghan series, though. What the Dead Know is a mystery story, too, but a totally different sort. The Monaghan stories adhered to the expected in the detective fiction genre. The lead was a well intentioned sort with various personal problems and a precarious financial situation. She intended to be hunting down the answers to myseries as her job, whether in the press or as a PI, pointed in that direction. She had the expected relationship issues. In many ways the stories were familiar, as one would want in a series that continued to feature the same lead character.

What the Dead Know has a totally different character, and character is really the right word. This book is all about its characters. The story centers on the disappearance of the Bethany sisters, 11 year old Heather and 15 year old Sunny, in 1975. Well, to say it centers in 1975 isn't really correct. It jumps around in time, with frequent layovers in 1981, 1989 and 2005, where the mystery is resolved. Lippman doesn't just take a non-linear tack to telling the story. She shifts voices. She tells her story from different perspectives but shapes one whole story that is moving and personal. Personal to Lippman, as she indicates in the author's notes afterward, but also personal to the reader, who can easily relate to each of the characters, no matter how off putting they can be at different points.

And Lippman has a real knack for getting inside the heads of her characters. Whether it's detective Kevin Infante, retired detective Willoughby, social worker Kay, the parents of the missing girls, or the Jane Doe who's the central element of the story, she doesn't just tell the story from different eyes, like a shifting camera. She tells it from the biases and prejudices of each of those people. Whether male or female, she gets the biases of the person right, which is to say she knows how men and women think, how their own personal damage is reflected in their perception of events, how they are frequently distracted from their goal at a given moment. The book is constantly in motion. Not just in the plot but in the perspectives. The same story could be told in a linear fashion but would be utterly lacking in the exploratory and revelatory joys that Lippman's tale is telling.

It's a big leap from the Monaghan books to this book, which were good works in their own right. As the cover says, in really small print, "A Novel". It would make a great transition to comic book, too, should someone be so adventurous. Probably better than a transition to film or TV. I'm looking forward to checking out another of her novels, Hardly Knew Her.

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