What the Dead Know by Laura Lippmann (Book Review)

What the Dead KnowWhat the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was gratified to enjoy this book as much as I did. I started with Baltimore Blues but put that aside when it started getting improbable and silly and I worried it was moving into Janet Evanovich/Stephanie Plum territory, which can only end in disappointment. (I liked the first two Stephanie Plum novels but after that they just got progressively, ridiculously inane.) Other reviewers had expressed similar disappointment, but raved about Lippman’s stand-alone novels, so I gave What the Dead Know a shot, and I’m glad I did. Excellent mystery here. Tightly plotted, nicely obfuscated* clues spread around liberally, excellent use of multiple pov’s which I particularly love, and a well-done reveal. I was gradually pulled in and couldn’t put it down for the second half.

There was one thing, though: The use of “police” as a singular noun, such as “I am a murder police” or talking about “a fellow police.” What in the heck am I reading here? So I researched it a little.

According to the grammarphobia website, the “a police” usage is insider lingo, used by those who work in or adjacent to law enforcement, and the Oxford English Dictionary calls it a “count noun,” used as either singular or plural with the instant usage regional to “America” (and as a resident of the United States, I do not consider “American” to be a very regional designation, but context is everything and everything is relative).

Stack Exchange, a website for those learning English as a second language, says otherwise, that if the noun is singular, then “police” is an adjective: “the police department” or “a police officer.” It does not include “I am a police” in its list of correct usages. However, this website also cites the HBO show “The Wire,” which has characters saying “a police,” and notes that the show is set in Baltimore, just as What the Dead Know is set in Baltimore and author Lippman is from Baltimore. So perhaps the regionalism referred to by the OED is specifically Baltimoreon** rather than generally American. That doesn’t make it grammatically correct, though.

I have worked directly for law enforcement, for attorneys involved in criminal prosecution and criminal defense, and for agencies regularly utilizing law enforcement services, for more than thirty years. I have been reading police procedurals longer than that. With all that, I have never seen this usage before reading this book. My verdict is that it is awkward, the kind of writing that draws attention to itself in a “Hey! Look at me!” way, and jerks me out of the smooth flow of story. I thought it was a typo every time I tripped over it.

Still a good read, though. I’ll be reading other Lippman stand-alone novels.

* My five-dollar word for the day.

** This is correct. I looked it up.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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