Baltimore inspires Lippman

The Baltimore Sun

What the Dead Know

Laura Lippman

William Morrow/HarperCollins / 376 pages / $24.95

Salem, Mass., Hannibal, Mo., Jackson, Miss., and Baltimore, Md. What's Baltimore doing on a list of places that inspired artful literature by authors as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Eudora Welty? Ask Laura Lippman.

Author of the award-winning Tess Monaghan crime series and two other novels, Lippman, a former reporter for The Sun, lives in Baltimore and has made the city and its environs an appealingly quirky and familiar character as she frames her ambitious fiction.

Her 12th novel, What the Dead Know, takes place primarily in Northwest Baltimore as it moves back and forth from present to past, from truth to lie, with the mysterious woman at its heart perhaps being the biggest liar of all, yet, in a sense, telling the truth.

The plot is inspired by a real-life kidnapping and subsequent futile search for two sisters, Sheila and Katherine Lyon, who disappeared on March 25, 1975, from the area around Wheaton Plaza and have never been found. With this case as a background, Lippman fuses truth and invention while creating a crime story that feels as real and gritty as the Baltimore neighborhoods she explores.

The tale begins as an attractive blond woman, who won't reveal her name, is arrested for leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident on the Baltimore Beltway. Asked why she didn't pull over at the Security Boulevard exit, she says she planned to call the police from the Windsor Hills Pharmacy at Forest Park Avenue and Windsor Mill Road.

The novel is filled with familiar places like the Beltway, Security Square Mall, St. Agnes Hospital, "the Starbucks on York Road, the one where the old Citgo station had been," Edenwald, a retirement home across from Towson Town Center, a nursing home in Sykesville, and "The Junction" at Gwynn Oak Avenue and Liberty Heights Avenue.

(The story also features some familiar characters such as Howard Lenhardt and Kevin Infante, police detectives who appeared in Lippman's earlier novel, To The Power of Three.)

Baltimoreans are likely to savor Lippman's spotlight on their city, feel nostalgic at the reference to shops that were once on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, as well as take a perverse pride at the mention of Baltimore's preference for words like warter for water and zinc for sink (to say nothing of the double prepositions in this phrase: "the state fair up at Timonium").

Even for readers who don't live here, the numerous local references add a rich texture of reality to Lipman's story, which is filled with fully realized characters and a plot brimming with suspense and, beyond the mystery, plays on larger themes of loss, tangled identities and personal missteps.

Lippman has an almost uncanny ability to get into the heads of her characters - the good guys and the not-so-good guys - and to bring them vividly alive with the help of details such as the clothes they wear and the purses they carry. She also ratchets up the tension by skillfully misdirecting readers.

The mystery woman, for example, has been to St. Agnes' emergency room several times, supposedly for the numerous cuts and scrapes of childhood - a deep cut in the knee, tiny shards of glass embedded in the calf, and, surprisingly, a fly swatter applied to an infected smallpox vaccination.

With her newspaper reporter's ear and eye, Lippman knows how to frame clues and false alarms as she lists what seems like tiresome minutiae. Readers, however, should beware; they need to sweat the small stuff. Little in this story is what it appears to be.

When Infante, the sexy, young detective mentioned earlier, learns that the mystery woman's car is registered to Penelope Jackson, the woman insists she's not Penelope Jackson. Rather she claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger of two sisters kidnapped nearly 30 years ago and presumed dead. Infante doesn't believe her and calls her both Jane Doe and - interestingly - the Queen of the Dead.

But who is she? Lippman provides several answers - all designed to hook readers until the novel's final page.

The woman might very well be Heather Bethany as she claims. She's familiar with the Bethany family, its former home in Woodlawn and family friends who lived in Sudbrook Park. She remembers being an "A" student and having aced a science project involving crawfish taken from the Gwynns Falls. She knows her mother, Miriam, was in real estate and her father, David, was in retail. She believes her parents separated after the kidnapping, that her father later died and her mother moved out of the country. She thinks her mother is also dead and is surprised to learn that she's alive.

Then, again, she could be Ruth Leiber from Bexley, Ohio, whose family died in a house fire in which she was the lone survivor. Taken in by her uncle, Stan Dunham, and his wife, she may have lived in Shrewsbury, Pa., with them and their quick-tempered, impulsive teenage son, Tony. During the day, the 15-year-old attended the Shrine of the Little Flower parochial school. At night, she shared a bed with Tony.

Or, perhaps, Penelope Jackson, who lived in Florida with the younger Dunham until a fire killed him but strangely spared her. She might be Barbara Monroe, a reporter for a small newspaper in Virginia, who graduated from a large high school in Chicago - because a "big school in a big city is easier to fake than a small one." Or maybe she's Priscilla Browne, a salesgirl living in Arlington, Va. She may even be Ketch, a computer programmer with a talent for reinventing herself.

As the authorities search fruitlessly for the woman's true identity, the case balloons from a minor car accident to an unsolved kidnapping/probable murder mystery. Gloria Bustamante, the lesbian lawyer called in to represent the defendant, believes she is Heather Bethany, but Bustamante may have her own agenda. Kay Sullivan, a social worker appointed to the case, agrees with Bustamante. But Kay is gullible and easily manipulated.

Infante and his assistant, Nancy Porter, are skeptical. After several days of questioning, they decide to ask Miriam Bethany to return to Baltimore and identify this supposed Heather Bethany. But will Miriam, blinded by grief at the destruction of her family, recognize her daughter - if this is indeed her daughter?

Told from an array of perspectives, this multi-layered tale carries the reader into a can't-put-down pursuit of the truth, weighing what's happening, what seems to have happened, what really happened, and where it happened. Through it all, Charm City isn't merely Lippman's setting. It's her inspiration.

Diane Scharper is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and teaches English at Towson University.

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