The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman

The death of Gordon “Go-Go” Halloran brings together four people who had been inseparable for a few years in the late 1970s but have since lost touch. The two girls, Gwen and Mickey, became friends with the three Halloran boys—“Crass Tim, Serious Sean, Wild Go-Go” —after barging into their kickball game. The five of them spent long summer days exploring the wild and overgrown woods nearby before stumbling into a mystery that would challenge and change them forever.

The story also includes their parents who interested me even more than the children. I usually describe the Baltimore of the past as being a combination of the very rich who owned the mills, the blue-collar workers who toiled in them, and a small middle-class who served both. Much has changed since then, of course, including the closure of nearly all of the mills, converted into health clubs and artist studios. However, to me, the three sets of parents reflect these levels. Gwen's parents, Clem and Tally, are quite wealthy while the Hallorans struggle to maintain a household that is just a bit beyond what they can manage. An accountant, Tim moves from job to job while Doris, a housewife, is overwhelmed with trying to keep up with three boys. Mickey's mother, Rita, works as a waitress, and her “not-quite-stepfather” Rick manages a service station. I confess Rita is my favorite character, maybe because I recognise myself in her. I too think life is a hoot and regret nothing. Well, almost nothing.

The book alternates between the past and the present and between the point of view of the children and their parents. I am not usually a fan of stories told from so many (ten) points of view, but Lippman handles the transitions deftly, and I am never confused about where or when we are in the story. How she manages that is something I'm still trying to figure out. In one part the chapters in the past are labeled with the season and year, but mostly it is the voice that identifies whether it is the child or the adult speaking and the details, such as a reference to Gwen's daughter, that identify the time period. The only bit I found confusing was the use of the first person plural (we) in some sections about the children. Since each child was referenced by name, I wondered if there was a sixth person narrating those sections (there isn't). I loved Joshua Ferris's use of first person plural, but in that case there were many unnamed characters in the group, any one of whom could have been the narrator.

However, this is a minor quibble with a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Of course I loved the local references: crabs at Connolley's, sauerkraut for Thanksgiving dinner, the jingle from the Schaefer beer commercial. And there are a few references to delight long-time Lippman readers. I've also spent time in Dickeyville, where the story is set, a most peculiar neighborhood even in a city known for its colorful neighborhoods. Reminiscent of a Cotswold village, Dickeyville is a little pocket of homes and other buildings that originated as a rural industrial village in the 19th century. Unknown to most city residents, it is a hidden place, set apart from nearby suburbs and shopping malls. Adding to its fairy-tale character, Dickeyville backs up to Leakin Park, a wild and tangled place known during Baltimore's drug wars as a dumping ground for bodies.

Wildness seems to me the core of the book. The quality of memories, individual and shared, and the use to which we put them are always concerns of Lippman's, but here there is also the idea of venturing out of the everyday world into woods where, as in a fairy tale, anything can happen. The children are unsupervised, as we all were back then, only required to be home for dinner. Our parents had large brass handbells they rang to call us home. These children are supposed to stay within calling distance of home, but find a way around that in order to plunge deeply into the woods, tearing their clothes on briars and splashing in the streams—forbidden because of pollution. I miss the freedom we had as children, to wander in nearby woods and push the rules to venture into territory our parents never dreamed of. I steeled myself to give my own children the same freedom to roam the park and woods without my supervision. They survived, of course, and I hope have good memories of catching salamanders and hauling rusty treasures out of Stony Run.

This book is more ambiguous morally than Lippman's other novels. I mean that as a compliment. Yes, children do things that they know or don't quite know are wrong, things that as an adult you hate to remember and can barely believe that you could have done. You could argue that there is no crime here, since these people do what they think is right. At least one reviewer thought that there was not enough “urgency” given to the mystery at the core of the book. I say that not every book is a thriller, nor would we want that. I liked the pacing: measured, thoughtful. For me the real mystery is what goes on in other people's heads. In the first part of the book Lippman explores how incurious children are about other people. Then she looks at the parents and their assumptions and quick assessments of each other. It is so hard for people (me included) to step out of our own heads. Our social mores don't lend themselves to those kinds of conversation, so spending extended time seeing the world through someone else's eyes is one of the joys of reading and writing for me.

As always, Lippman gives us young characters who ring true. It is tremendously hard to write about children without succumbing to sentimentality or making them annoyingly precocious. Yet Lippman succeeds in presenting the five children so realistically that I almost recognise them as kids I once knew. Even better, she holds them up against their adult selves, the continuum between child and adult perfectly believable. I find that path from the child to the adult fascinating. It's why I like reading memoirs and biographies. Yesterday I held a six-week-old baby and had the odd experience of a vision—just a flash—of the child as a young adult, what he would look like, what kind of person he would be. I hope I'm around to find out.

I thought the section on the parents the best part of the book, perhaps because I am at that time of life where I am assessing the choices made against Whittier's “dreams of youth”. In London this summer I saw Nick Gill's mirror teeth at Finborough Theatre, a funny and disturbing satire of a middle-class English family. The characters kept saying, even as things fell apart around them, “It's a good life.” It gave me a shock to see the same line here. Yet, Lippman is after the same kind of commentary, I think, if not quite so broad. What is a good life? What is a good marriage? What compromises do we make as adults with the dreams we had as children?

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