'The Most Dangerous Thing': With empathy and grace, Laura Lippman writes of buried childhood secrets

Book review: 'The Most Dangerous Thing,' by Laura Lippman. William Morrow, $25.95.

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Before the days of play dates and overscheduled children and helicopter moms hovering like mosquitoes, kids were free to roam their neighborhoods.

The five children in Laura Lippman's gripping new novel, "The Most Dangerous Thing," have a long leash, exploring the woods next to their houses in the Baltimore suburb of Dickeyville.

The year is 1977, and Gwen, chubbby and innocent, befriends Mickey, a wildly beautiful tomboy. The girls start playing with the three Halloran boys, Tim, Sean and Gordon, nicknamed Go-Go for his manic energy.

One carefree day, the gang races through the woods and happens upon a recluse who lives in a cabin without plumbing. They call him "Chicken George" for the chickens he keeps. He's their secret. Their sense of adventure only heightens when they steal cans of food from their parents' pantries and sneak it back to their pet.

Then one day, something terrible happens in the woods. The tragedy severs the friendship among Gwen, Mickey and the Halloran boys, and draws the parents into the drama.

Fast forward to the present. Go-Go, a troubled man who can't shake his childhood nickname or demons, drives his car into a Jersey barrier and dies.

His death throws the four survivors back together to examine their buried past and to speculate on whether Go-Go killed himself.

Ms. Lippman, the Edgar-winning mystery writer and former newspaper reporter from Baltimore, spins a mesmerizing tale by switching back and forth between the present and past and the points of view of the four friends and their parents. With each page, she yanks readers a little closer to the fateful day in the woods. But the book is also a moving psychological drama that unearths the adults' childhood secrets and makes them look at their culpability.

Gwen is a fascinating character, a now svelte and unhappily married journalist who hovers over her own young daughter in the style of a modern mom. Shadowed by her famous husband, she moves in with her ailing father, a widower, and learns the truth of her parents' marriage. Go-Go's funeral forces Gwen to examine her complicated relationship with Mickey, who has reinvented herself as Mckey, a sophisticated flight attendant.

Despite protests from her former friends, Gwen won't stop kicking up the past. She gets clues to what happened after meeting a private investigator named Tess Monaghan, the star of Lippman's previous mysteries who makes an entertaining cameo here.

Though Ms. Lippman excels at the icy delicacy of female tensions, she also writes convincingly about the rivalry between the three Halloran brothers. Go-Go is the hapless screw-up, the kid who never has a chance. And Sean is the perfect son, a reputation that sticks even after he moves out of town and Tim takes over the care of his mother and proves himself a much kinder person.

No one gets off the hook of self-examination. But Ms. Lippman writes with empathy and grace about the buried secrets of friends and the debilitating silences between parents and their children.

Cristina Rouvalis is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.


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