What lingers beyond all else about Laura Lippman’s latest stand-alone thriller is its brooding depiction of the old neighborhood. Dickeyville, Lippman tells readers in a note at the end of “The Most Dangerous Thing,” is the out-of-the-way neighborhood on Baltimore’s western edge where she grew up. As she describes it, the Dickeyville of some 40 years ago was part small-town suburbia, part Hansel and Gretel hallucination. Residents of the mostly older houses in the area all knew each other (at least by sight); Halloween parades and other quaint civic entertainments were a staple; pharmacies sold ice cream sodas; and kids could play for hours, unsupervised, in the woods that run through the area. That last item accounts for the Hansel and Gretel reference. Woods are never a reassuring locale in suspense fiction, and the particular woods that rim the houses of Lippman’s Dickeyville are dark and deep and full of ghosts too restless to sleep.
“The Most Dangerous Thing” alternates between a present-day reunion of sorts among five former friends and flashbacks to the late 1970s, when that group first came together in adolescence. Gwen was the budding beauty, a doctor’s daughter who lived in an odd modernist house. Her friend Mickey was a cynical tomboy being raised by a swinging single mother. The three Halloran boys rounded out the pack: Part of a large, working-class Irish-Catholic brood, the Hallorans shared hand-me-downs as well as a massive chip on their shoulders. Lippman vividly summons up the formlessness of summer days of yore, when accidental bands of kids who had nothing much in common but their neighborhood would clump together and ask, “Whaddayawannado?” In the case of these five friends, the answer — “Go into the woods and mess around” — led to a grotesque incident that has haunted the kids and their parents ever since.
Truth to tell, the terrible secret from the past that pops up to wreak havoc on the present is about as standard a conceit in suspense fiction as the trench coat and femme fatale are in hard-boiled detective fiction. Add to that sense of ho-humness the fact that the secret in question turns out to be rather murky, and many readers will be left wondering exactly what is “the most dangerous thing” referred to in the title. (Beats me.)
But if Lippman’s latest is only a middlin’ thriller, it stands as a sharply observed cultural chronicle of the 1970s, when the revolutions of the ’60s finally rumbled through outlying neighborhoods (in both the geographical and cultural sense) such as Dickeyville. Gwen’s mother, a frustrated artist, is touched by the Second Women’s Rights Movement, although she’s too mired in her marriage to do much more than fume. Even the Hallorans, the most stuck-in-amber clan in the neighborhood, can’t stave off change forever. Here’s the middle Halloran son, Tim, as an adult, describing how his teenage children view his old Dickeyville house and his widowed mother, who still lives in it:
“The house on Sekots Lane was a desired destination when the girls were younger, a place they clamored to visit. It had a doll’s house feel to them — smaller in scale than the houses in their Stoneleigh neighborhood, and full of wonders. The carpet sweeper, a waist-high freezer in the basement stocked with Good Humor bars. . . . But the house and its inhabitants long ceased to entertain the girls. Lunch finished, the three sisters slump on the sofa in the downstairs rec room, watching the flat-screen television, a gift from Tim and [his brother] Sean. . . . If not for cable television, the girls would never come here, but he doesn’t want to spell that out for his mother.”
Lippman calls “The Most Dangerous Thing” her “most autobiographical novel . . . in strict geographical terms,” and her precise descriptions of Dickeyville and environs, past and present, make this one of her most poignant books. Maybe “the most dangerous thing” isn’t the specter of bogeymen in the woods or old companions who can’t keep their mouths shut; maybe “the most dangerous thing” turns out to be the relentless passage of time.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
THE MOST DANGEROUS THING
By Laura Lippman
Morrow. 344 pp. $25.99