Author Laura Lippman stands on a street in the Baltimore neighborhood… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
The pungent, haunting narrative of Laura Lippman's new novel, "The Most Dangerous Thing," kicks in with a group of kids arguing for dibs on a grassy kickball field near a cotton mill on "Wetheredsville Road."
The whole scene sounds like a cozy nostalgia trip. But that patch of grass really does exist — in Charm City, no less — in isolated, rustic Dickeyville. Lippman grew up there, and "The Most Dangerous Thing" is full of vivid backgrounds and behavior — some factual, some imagined — pulled from or inspired by the youth she spent in this improbable neighborhood on the western edge of Baltimore.
"The Most Dangerous Thing," her 17th novel, came out Tuesday. It's her most ambitious piece of fiction yet — and her most personal book, too. It brought her literally close to home.
"I've been waiting to write about Dickeyville since I started writing novels," Lippman said on a jaunt there a dozen days before the publication date. "Somehow I always knew, even when I was pretty naive and really green about what I was doing, that you get one shot at Dickeyville. You don't want it to be just a glancing mention in a chapter. You have to do it great."
Best known as the creator of the Tess Monaghan private-eye series — smart, tough, funny mysteries, marinated in Baltimoriana — Lippman, 52, has been concentrating more recently on superb nonseries novels, like "What The Dead Know" (2007) and 2010's "I'd Know You Anywhere,' which Stephen King called "the best suspense novel of the year."
"She is developing in these marvelous ways," said Baltimore-based novelist Madison Smartt Bell. "As far as wanting to be accepted by the literati, I don't think she gives a rat's ass about that."
With "The Most Dangerous Thing," Lippman was writing fiction, not a memoir.
While Lippman suffuses the novel with her feelings for her childhood home, a short diagonal walk from the field, it's nothing like the contemporary house at the center of the novel. The three-story duplex, built hard up against a hill, hasn't changed since Lippman moved to Dickeyville with her family, at age 6, in 1965.
While writing "The Most Dangerous Thing," she didn't revisit this hamlet, which is more like a rugged-handsome New England mill town than one of Baltimore's deluxe covenant communities or scrappy 'hoods. The visit for The Baltimore Sun was her first time back since she started writing the novel.
"I wasn't interested in how it is now," she said. "I was interested in how I remembered it."
And she remembers it vividly.
The trip confirms old feelings rather than generates new ones. Her glee at the size of Leakin Park: "It's all around us. It's bigger than Central Park, which makes New Yorkers crazy, and the trail is fabulous."
Her fear of a cranky neighbor, the once-famous Maryland muralist R. McGill Mackall: "The ultimate get-off-my-lawn guy — he seemed to think his lawn extended all the way to the banks of the Gwynns Falls."
Lippman said she'd thought her "Dickeyville novel" would be the Tess Monaghan detective tale, "Another Thing to Fall" (2008), which had a more escapist, "Sweet Liberty"-like plot about a Hollywood TV production invading Baltimore. But Lippman sensed that doing Dickeyville right would require a dark fictional undertow. The plot had to suit a place where the wild things are.
Memory is the catalyst of "The Most Dangerous Thing" — the primal source of mystery. How well do we know what we think we know? How often do we shape and reshape our perceptions of our past?
Lippman roots these big, resonant questions in intimate, charged observations. The tiniest detail — such as the way a chubby girl like Gwen bites and licks the coating off a candy bar — can operate like a time machine, hurtling readers back into lost worlds of childhood.
Intricate and compelling, this novel takes multiple risks. It kills off the pivotal figure in the first very chapter: Go-Go Halloran, a 40-year-old manchild. He's weak, kind, alcoholic — and tragically eager to please. The book jumps in and out of his head and those of a dozen other characters, catching them at complex turning points of adolescence and adulthood.
When Go-Go was a child, he and his older brothers, Tim Jr. and Sean, and their friends, Gwen and Mickey, moved from playing kickball to exploring Leakin Park's deep woods. They became ensnared in a catastrophe. It involved an indigent black man, some kind of sexual misconduct and a death during Hurricane David. And they and their parents covered it up for decades.
Lippman veers into the first-person plural to convey the kids' group version of events. By the end, she achieves the tingling effect of seeing a water-stained image salvaged and brought into focus. Lippman understands her characters' urge to transform the past into crazy quilts of alternate histories. It's part of what she does with fiction.