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Psychological Mysteries

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, $7.99.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman becomes a more interesting novelist with each new book, her latest, What the Dead Know, being a case in point. Following up two other extremely strong standalones, this book is a worthy companion to those two, but at the same time very different. It's a very haunting book - I was thinking about it long after I finished it - and I'll bet the story stays with you too. Setting up the story is a car accident - the kind of thing that could happen to anyone through a combination of crappy weather, slightly careless driving, and general inattention. When the woman who precipitates (though not really causes) the accident gets out of her car and starts walking away from the scene, she's picked up by the police, though she's taken to the hospital first, because she's slightly injured.

At the hospital the mystery deepens - the woman claims to be one of the "Bethany girls" - sisters who disappeared without a trace in 1975, never to be seen again. Lippman is kind of an archeologist of the human heart - as she dissects the family, mother, father and daughters - you are drawn more and more into their world. It doesn't feel like a dissection, though, it feels descriptive and insightful. The details of a 1975 childhood are spot on, as her touchstones will be familiar to any over 40 reader. She manages to make her story suspenseful by having the woman - who claims to be the younger sister, Heather Bethany - seem slightly off, as does her story, in parts. Surrounding Heather's story is a solid police novel - the procedures of the police get them to some places the investigation was never able to go in 1975, and as the original (and retired) investigator gets drawn into the case, it gets slightly sticky. He's never forgotten the girls or been out of touch with the parents, though the father has died since the girls' disappearance.

Under the suspense is the visceral horror of every parent's worst nightmare - an innocent trip to the mall turns into a nightmare when the girls are kidnapped, one is killed, and the remaining one becomes more or less a sexual slave. This of course has some real resonance thanks to some recent news stories of kidnap victims who were hiding in plain sight, and Lippman is able to explain how that might happen. This is a tragic and haunting story where one bad decision turns into many with repercussions that reverberate for decades, but Lippman is not a writer without hope. Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith would have made this a far more bleak affair - and Lippman is treading similar territory - but she has a more human heart, I think, and it serves her well. It serves the reader well too, as the story of Heather Bethany will stay with you for quite a while.

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