Something terrible happened in the woods on that day so long ago. Was it what the children said happened . . . or something else? The man who sometimes lived in the ramshackle cabin the children discovered when exploring, whom they called Chicken George after the character in Roots, ended up dead. Didn’t he?
And now those children are grown, with children of their own. They’re all approaching middle age and their parents are elderly or dead. Gordon “Go-Go” Halloran is also dead. After two years of sobriety, he was on his way to an AA meeting. But he turned his father’s old Buick in the opposite direction and ended up in a local bar . . . and off the wagon. When they ejected him, he drove the car straight into an embankment at ninety miles per hour. Did he do it deliberately? Or was he just playing chicken the way kids sometimes do, despite the fact that he was far too old to be doing so, and lost control of the car?
Gwen has returned home to care for her ailing father who refuses to abandon his custom Baltimore home. It is a convenient excuse to distance herself from her failing marriage. She is deeply troubled by Go-Go’s death and when she attends his funeral, she is reunited with his older brothers, Sean and Tom. Absent is Mickey, now a flight attendant who calls herself McKey. The five of them were close and inseparable for that brief period of time before everything went wrong in the woods. They were like the five points of a star, separate but connected, and divisible into smaller points of light, as well. But in the aftermath of Go-Go’s death, each of them — Sean, Tom, Gwen and Mickey — wonders if the secret they share is the reason for their troubled lives . . . and if someone within their circle is trying to destroy each of them.
The Most Dangerous Thing is that most delicious type of mystery: a multi-generational character study in which the key players are bound together by a terrible secret. What makes the story even more intriguing is the fact that none of them knows the entire story — nor will they. But each of them knows a portion of what happened on that terrible night of the hurricane so many years ago. Each was motivated to act in certain ways based upon what they believed took place that evening. But none of them knows the whole truth and author Laura Lippman does not reveal everything until the very end, holding readers in suspense, wondering which, if any, of the characters will eventually come to fully understand the sordid details.
In successive sections of the book, Lippman focuses on each individual character — as they were then and, in the case of those still living, as they are now. The Hallorans, Doris and Tim, lived in a modest middle-class tract home that was always a mess. Tim had trouble maintaining a job. Sean was the adored, perceived-as-perfect son, while Tom was the wise-cracking lummox, and little Go-Go the troubled baby that Doris protected from his father’s rage and perpetual disappointment. It was Go-Go who was dubbed the victim that day so long ago — the reason that Tim, along with Gwen’s father, Clem, and Mickey’s faux stepfather, Rick, ventured into the woods to intercede after they heard about what had happened. All sworn to silence, Clem, now eighty-eight years old and in failing health, wonders if the other two men held their tongues and still struggles to comprehend what exactly he saw that day.
Meanwhile, Sean has gone on to corporate success and marriage to passive-aggressive Vivian, who despises every minute she must spend with Doris and encourages Sean to visit his mother alone. Meanwhile, Tim is happily married to Arlene and the father of three daughters who essentially ignore him in the manner reserved exclusively for teenage girls who dabble in wild behavior. A prosecutor, he has versed himself in the legal intricacies of the secret they all harbor and understands that the truth, if revealed, could still bring dire consequences. Mickey, aka McKey, distanced herself from the four others when her mother broke up with Rick, moved in with Larry, and moved out of the neighborhood. In the ensuing years, she has remained distant from her waitress mother and half-brother, earning a living as a flight attendance and scrupulously using men only as a means to an end. She knows she is beautiful and desirable, but she has no interest or ability to enter into a committed relationship.
Finally, Gwen finds herself spending time back in the childhood home she loves as much as her father. Her own life has mirrored her parents’ relationship in several critical aspects. She is married to the older Karl, a self-absorbed celebrity physician whose disinterest in her activities makes her feel invisible and insignificant. But Karl is devoted to their five-year-old adopted daughter, Annabelle, as is she, and refuses to consider a divorce. She is hiding a secret about their relationship and her role in its downfall and, as she cares for her injured father, she comes to understand more about her own parents’ marriage, appreciating that it was not as perfect as it appeared to her in her younger years. Determined to understand why Go-Go died, her journalistic instincts compel her to explore whether his death was accidental or suicide, as well as the extent to which that day so long ago contributed to make Go-Go’s life one beset by sadness, failed marriages, and his battle with booze — a battle that, ironically, he was winning until the night he went into the bar instead of to the meeting. What prompted Go-Go to make that fatal choice? When Gwen discovers that someone from their past had contacted Go-Go, she begins to understand the stress that prompted him to resume drinking.
In typical Lippman fashion, the story unfolds at a steady, measured pace. Each character is fascinating, but it is the myriad ways in which their lives intersect or continue in isolation that propel the story forward. Always, there is the mystery of that night in the background, serving as momentum for each characters’ actions. When the shocking secret is finally revealed, the fallout provides a satisfying conclusion, but questions linger, making the book an excellent choice for book club discussion. Lippman describes The Most Dangerous Thing as the “most autobiographical novel” she has written “in strict geographical terms. For many years now, I have been circling the unusual neighborhood in which I grew up, determined to write about it, but wanting to wait for the right time and story.” The Most Dangerous Thing is indeed that ideal tale and the locale is itself an additional character, adding depth and nuance to a story that arguably could not have played out against any other backdrop. She also employs an inventive storytelling technique that she admits has “delighted some readers, confounded others, and irritated a few.” Some of the chapters are told in the first-person plural, leading readers to wonder which character is speaking? It is confusing, to be sure, but also highly effective. She refuses to reveal her reasons for structuring the story in that manner, instead preferring that readers draw their own conclusions.
Lippman is simply a master storyteller, injecting subtle hints and clues that can easily be overlooked by careless readers, all of which point to the climactic conclusion. The Most Dangerous Thing is a most engaging tale about innocence, friendship, and the power of dramatic events to impact one’s future in far-reaching, surprising ways. I highly recommend it.