Just about perfect

This review was emailed out to subscribers to my store's email list on April 6. To sign up for The Mystery Company's e-newsletter, visit the store's homepage at www.themysterycompany.com.

There aren't a heck of a lot of perfect novels; Laura Lippman's latest, What the Dead Know, may be one. I've liked Lippman's work for years -- and she's already been nominated for and won scads of awards in this genre: Edgars, Anthonys, Shamuses, Agathas, Macavitys, etc. At some point, you've probably heard me talk about how much I enjoy Lippman's Tess Monaghan series and admire her feel for Baltimore, the city in which Lippman lives and sets her books.

Even this stellar track record doesn't prepare you for the excellence of What the Dead Know, an intricate, beautifully crafted and utterly engrossing standalone mystery novel -- the best I've read in months. The book starts from a premise that's both simple and utterly baffling: the apparent reappearance in Baltimore of the victim of a 30-year-old kidnapping. A woman is picked up by police for fleeing the scene of a car accident. She's guarded about every aspect of her life except one: she insists that she's one of the two sisters who never returned from a Saturday afternoon shopping trip on Easter weekend in 1975.

That's all we know. Lippman keeps us guessing about everything else. Is the woman really Heather Bethany or is she an imposter? What happened to her sister, Sunny? Why is the woman so reticent with details about her whereabouts since the disappearance?

Question after question, built on detail and nuance both small and large. Lippman doles out information in tantalizing bits, taking us effortlessly through 30 years of the lives of her characters, each one of whom is vividly drawn.

There's a rave review of What the Dead Know in yesterday's New York Times that compares Lippman to Ruth Rendell, a comparison that occurred to me as well because of the acute insight into the psychology of the characters, and for the puzzling gamesmanship of the woman who insists she's Heather Bethany. The problem with the comparison is that these characters aren't nearly as twisted as Rendell's, nor is the narrative nearly as dark. Part of what makes this book so effective is how much like you and me these folks are, and how much this suburban Baltimore landscape resembles our suburban Indianapolis. Perhaps a better comparison is Joesphine Tey, another master of weaving suspenseful stories from more ordinary situations and people.