Sunday, February 24, 2008

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

I'm fairly picky about my mysteries. Only those written by British women, and then only by a handful of authors. But when establishing those sorts of limits, you are well, obviously, significantly limiting your reading options.

At the end of the year, I tend to peruse the best of lists to get an idea as to what I want to add to next year's reading list. This book was mentioned several times, it's a mystery, written by an American woman, and was lauded as a thrilling mystery. And yet, by the time I finished it, I remembered why I prefer the British.

Two young girls go missing at the mall. After an extensive investigation, there are no clues. Thirty years later, a woman is in a car wreck, attempts to flee the scene and when she's caught, she claims to be one of the missing Bethany girls. Thus begins the story...

The story flips back and forth between now and then, including examinations of the effects on the parents and the investigators, intertwined with flashbacks from the mystery woman. I found this to be aggravating because the only mystery is the tease the author is creating for the reader. The actual events cover two or three days and aren't nearly as exciting. A hesitant, spoiled woman with selective memory, a detective who wants to screw anything that moves and a sad divorcee and an angry lawyer are all standing around waiting for the truth.

There are too many characters who have no real impact on the story. While the writing succeeds in keeping the reader guessing, upon learning the truth, it feels like such a wasted effort. It was set up to seem so mysterious and horrible and in the end, it's all quite pathetic. The implied cruelty was not at all what was implied, and was in fact very much a hell of the victim's own making. Harsh, yes, but I felt no sympathy at all for this character.

As I said, the story drags out for quite a while, with teases and hints and blind flashbacks from the mystery woman. Then the whole truth is quickly explained in about ten or so pages, leaving me saying, "What the hell? That's what happened?" Very, very unsatisfying read. So many other books I could have been reading during this time.

My biggest issues with the story -- it's set up to imply that the girls are much younger than they are. As I read it, I kept thinking, two, young, innocent little girls. (I realize their ages must have been mentioned, but still... ) And in the conclusion, the innocent young girls become fiesty, rebellious women. Didn't see that coming, at all. Maybe that's my own fault. But if that was the case, why was it regarded only as a kidnapping, and not a potential runaway situation?

Another problem was that it was not at all believable. The parents are described as being open-minded and progressive. The mother even points out that these weren't the sort of children who would go off with someone claiming to be a cop because their father had taught them to question authority. But if they were such great parents, why would their daughter behave in such a way? It doesn't make sense at all. As horrible as the events are, for the characters to behave in the way they do initially and then continue to behave in such a way for the next thirty years? Their behavior is more like that expected from children who have abusive or cold, distance parents, not the liberal, loving ones described.

I didn't enjoy this book. I liked it even less when I learned later that it was loosely based on a real life case. Meaning the events that did make sense in the story were copied from real life and the assumption as to what happened -- the part that seemed so absurd was the work of the author.

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