Five children accidentally harm a hermit in the woods -- and then someone goes back to finish the job.
In the late '70s, five children explore a woods in Baltimore. They come across a shack, seemingly abandoned, until one day they encounter its owner, a toothless old black man whom they name Chicken George because of the hens running around. He plays them tunes on his steel guitar and asks them to bring money or canned goods.
One day, two of the children come running from the shack. The girl, Mickey, has pushed George; he falls and hits his head on a rock. Mickey tells the other kids that George had been touching "Go-Go," the youngest of their group, and she'd been rescuing him. They run home, presumably leaving the old man to die. They tell their parents only what George had done, but nothing of the aftermath. Yet as the novel gradually reveals, moving back and forth from the group's childhood to their middle age, someone went back and finished the job, killing the old man and making his body disappear.
The novel, though well-written, with fluent dialogue and smart perceptions of character, seems a little ambivalent about its tethering of crime novel with the overly familiar middle-class dissection of domestic life, featuring loss, aging, disappointments in marriage, job and children.
In a sly nod to readers of her crime series featuring private eye Tess Monaghan, Lippman has her favorite gumshoe show up, hired by someone to whom Go-Go, who has died in a drunken car crash, had wanted to confess something. Through Tess and her client, we learn what really happened in those woods, but by now, we know that innocence lost and lies told will lead neither to clarity nor redemption. The sad and worn adults will just continue groping through their lives. They're left only with the hard knowledge that of all the dangers they had been warned about in childhood, "it was us, in our naivete and heedlessness, who were to be feared. We were the most dangerous thing in the woods."