The Most Dangerous Thing

  • Laura Lippman
  • William Morrow
  • 352 pp.

From a master crime writer, a beautifully crafted tale of many-layered truth and the horror of human lies.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

Laura Lippman knows that you have to listen to a lot of people’s stories before you know the truth. That is part of what has made her novels so fascinating, whether they are part of her Tess Monaghan detective series or one of her many stand-alone novels. She digs out what actually happened in an incident, a murder or a story from many different people, each of whom may have only partial knowledge, as well as a reason to rationalize or repress it. In this novel, as in others, the tension builds as the reader discovers each piece of the truth.

The Most Dangerous Thing begins with the death of 40-year-old Gordon, who still thinks of himself by his childhood nickname of “Go-Go,” and as the problem child, the loser, of his family’s three boys. He’s had a good run of sobriety, but is getting drunk. He gets behind the wheel of his father’s old Buick, goes out onto a two-mile stub of never-finished interstate. Lippman writes what he’s thinking: “Go, Go-Go. He is dancing, wild and free … everyone loves him and everyone is laughing, and he is splashing through the stream, heedless of the poisonous water.” He slams into the Jersey barrier, leaving his two brothers and their childhood playmates to piece together the reasons for his self-destruction.

Lippman tells the story in flashbacks, using  ten different people to tell it. In the summer of 1977, Go-Go is the youngest of five playmates; the others are his brothers, Sean and Tim, and two neighborhood girls, Gwen and Mickey. They explore the woods of Leakin Park in Dickeyville, woods that their parents warned them about because of the dangerously polluted creek, the nasty insects and the poisonous snakes. They find an odd shack harboring a strange vagrant man, whom they nickname “Chicken George.”  In late summer, when a hurricane hits Baltimore, the children are out in the woods, two of them in the shack with Chicken George. There is trouble, and the other children run for their fathers. At the end of the confusing evening, Chicken George is dead, his body is gone, and each person involved in the incident knows only part of what happened.

The adults and the young people involved in the incident are silent about it, not even discussing it with each other. There are no obvious or immediate consequences. The young people drift away from their friendship. Years later, after Go-Go’s death, they begin to piece together what happened, and discover that a terrible injustice was done, that Go-Go’s knowledge of what took place, although incomplete, was enough to warp his life, and his discovery of the whole truth drove him to his final act of self-destruction.

Lippman has a sure sense of the complicated evil that can be created by the silence of well-meaning people, and great skill at keeping the tension high and the pages turning. She also has a wonderful eye for the daffy banality that sometimes camouflages human need: The day after Go-Go’s funeral, his mother appears at Gwen’s door with a plate of cookies. “I should be doing this for you,” Gwen tells her, and offers her a cup of tea. Gwen takes the plate and sees store-bought cookies. “And not even good store-bought cookies. How had throwing these leftovers on a plate helped to distract Mrs. Halloran from anything? Gwen doesn’t want to be unkind, but there is something hostile about those cookies.” As it turns out, what Mrs. Halloran needed was reassurance that her boys were good boys.

Lippman’s story is solidly grounded in the real Baltimore, from the interstate stub where Go-Go is killed, to a job-hunter dropping off a résumé in Security Square, to the childhood treats that Gwen’s mother keeps in the house.

There is one confusing device: Lippman occasionally refers to “we,” as in “We were sad. No one cried. Tim, Sean and Mickey never cried, and Gwen and Go-Go had learned to follow their example.” While it is clear that “we” refers to the group of five young people, the narration is never in the first person, leaving the reader to puzzle whether there is maybe a sixth character who is never mentioned. There is not. And while it is easily understood that “we” means the five, it is a distraction from what is otherwise a masterfully written book.

For the many readers who are already Laura Lippman fans, The Most Dangerous Thing will provide another satisfying read. For readers who are not yet fans, this beautifully spun yarn about the horror of human lies and manipulation will make a compelling introduction.

Susan Storer Clark, a former broadcast journalist and retired civil servant, lives in Silver Spring, Md., and has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years. She has completed a historical novel,“Scandal’s Child,” which is set partly in Baltimore in the late 1850s and features the fictionalized daughter of a real person as the central character.

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