‘Keep Quiet’: when good people do bad things

rc2012033-NYT Lisa ScottolineSome of our best thriller writers have been taking chances with the form and breaking out of any boxes reviewers or readers might have put them in.

Last night, I started the new Andrew Gross book, “Everything to Lose,” which is set in post-recession suburbia and continues the author’s recent use of female protagonists to test his powers of empathy.

A few days ago, I raced through the latest Lisa Scottoline novel, “Keep Quiet,” in which the writer continues her exploration of how men cope with crisis (a process she started last year with the terrific “Don’t Go”).

Scottoline made her name — and built a large readership — with crime novels about smart and witty female lawyers much like herself (in a former life). The books explored history, family, workplace anxiety and sexual politics — but strictly from a woman’s point of view.

The men in the earlier Scottoline novels were kept largely on the sidelines as the author made up for many decades of books and movies in which women sat home after telling their men of action to “Be careful!”

Scottoline’s extraordinary pivot to a male protagonist in “Don’t Go” continues in “Keep Quiet” — which is being published today by St. Martin’s Press — and she amps up the drama by putting Jake Buckman into one of the most harrowing scenarios you can imagine.

While driving his teen son, Ryan, home from a movie onekeepquiet2 night, Jake agrees to let Ryan test his driving skills by pulling over and letting the boy take the wheel. It’s after 11 — when kids with driver’s permits are not allowed to operate a vehicle even with parental supervision — but what can happen in the few minutes it will take to get home?

On a blind curve, Ryan takes his eyes off the road for a moment, there’s a terrible thump, and when they pull off the road, the father and son see that they’ve hit a young woman who is already beyond saving. Jake decides to shoulder any blame by saying he was driving, but then decides to leave the scene — the woman obviously cannot be helped — and the father and son agree to keep the accident a secret.

All of this happens in the first two chapters, as Scottoline puts us in the shoes of a man who fears his son’s life would be ruined by any possible outcome of this case. Ryan agrees, but soon struggles with his terrible secret as it is revealed the young woman went to his high school. Ryan’s classmates are plunged into grief and a desperate desire to find the creep who committed this crime.

“Keep Quiet” never shies away from the implications of what Jake and Ryan do, but the author allows us to see how such a rash and terrible decision can be made, and then what it is like to try to live with the growing guilt.

Scottoline moves into Patricia Highsmith territory as we wonder how Jake can survive this situation or, indeed, whether or not he should survive it. The writer takes a figure we would view from the outside as a monster and shows us how easily we might find ourselves in the same horrible situation.

“Keep Quiet” has more than one big surprise up its sleeve — events in the second half of the story that make the last few chapters almost unbearably suspenseful — so I won’t go any deeper into the plot, but Scottoline never backs away from the nightmarish morality tale she has constructed with such diabolical precision.

(Lisa Scottoline will be making her first Connecticut book tour stop in several years at the Westport Barnes and Noble store on Friday, April 18 at 7 p.m.)

Click on the link for an excerpt from the “Keep Quiet” audio book: