Secrets forged in the heat of youth and their consequences as adults is a theme Laura Lippman has explored often in her excellent stand-alone novels of TO THE POWER OF THREE, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE. It is also the fuel powering her latest, THE MOST DANGEROUS THING.
New to paperback, the novel opens with the death of Gordon Halloran from a car crash following another night of heavy drinking. His funeral reunites his two brothers, Sean and Tim, along with two women, Gwen and Mickey. We soon learn that these four, along with Go-Go (Gordon’s nickname), were a tight-knit group growing up together in Dickeyville, Md. — so tight that you almost never saw one without the other four members of their “five-pointed star.”
But as the years passed, and the five friends grew closer to the complexities of adulthood, a traumatic event during the night of a violent storm became a secret they vowed never to reveal, especially to their parents. It involved a transient they met many months earlier who lived in a shack deep within the woods of a huge local park.
Now, as the surviving friends gather after Go-Go’s funeral, they discover that their secret has been revealed. Were they betrayed by one of their own? Was Go-Go’s death not an accident, but a suicide caused by this long-held secret? These and other related and disturbing questions haunt the four friends as they recall their past and re-examine their resulting lives.
Lippman brings us into the world of the quintet through a series of alternating chapters recalling past events and those in the present day. Her detailing of each of her characters is probing and utterly convincing. We come to know each of them during their energetic time as kids, through the confusing discovery of their individuality as adolescents, and then through the abandoned dreams and comfortable compromises that define them as adults.
But the author also felt obliged to apply the same detailing to the lives of the friends’ parents. While the writing is as extensive and revealing, these sections seem distracting and overly long.
It is only when we get past these chapters, in the final quarter of the novel, that we understand why it was as important to know as much about them as we do the friends themselves. It is in these concluding moments that the full truth behind the secret, and everyone it touched, is finally learned, along with the devastating effect it has on all of the survivors. The quickening of the pace, along with suspense added as the truth is learned, adds up to some of Lippman’s finest and most powerful moments.
Is THE MOST DANGEROUS THING a crime novel? Well, yes. There is more than one unexplained death examined (and a brief, surprise appearance from the star of Lippman’s popular series novels). But the “crimes” you remember long after finishing the novel are the more subtle, psychological ones often committed unknowingly to our loved ones as well as to ourselves. These are the crimes — and the stories — Lippman knows best, and the reason why she remains one of the finest contemporary writers working today. —Alan Cranis