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Laura Lippman's darker side of Dickeyville

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.

She's known for the gritty and evocative way she chronicles her home city. She occupies the center of a gifted circle of crime writers who've pioneered a new kind of "hyper-regionalism" — to borrow a word from her friend, Dennis Lehane, who does for Boston what she does for Baltimore, in novels like "Mystic River."

Still, Lippman said, she applauded the novelist Donald Westlake when he proclaimed, at a conference, "I became a novelist so I could make things up."

"My family would have been here at the time of Hurricane David; I was away at college; I don't remember them even mentioning it," she said.

"And in a way, for me, that's what the book is all about — the incuriosity we have within our own circle of friends and families. …We kind of forget later, when we're adults, that we can go back to our parents and say 'OK, so I have this memory. Why was this? How did it happen? Or what really happened?'"

Lippman keeps wild imaginings and facts in play — she dances between her desire to get at some fictional version of "the truth" and her impulse to make things up.

Her deep knowledge of her chosen form — the crime novel — often helps her kick-start her work. This book came from a basic template that a lot of people use, she said, especially in the crime genre: A group of young people do something terribly wrong; they've got to keep it secret forever; years later, it becomes apparent that the secret isn't going to hold.

"The only thing I did differently with the template was to ask, 'What if there's another group that also has a secret — and how tragic would it be if the two groups were these kids and their parents?'" she said.

Lippman is a parent herself. She's long enjoyed a close relationship with her 17-year-old stepson. (She's married to David Simon, the creator of "The Wire" and "Treme," and, like Lippman, a former reporter for The Sun.) She's now the mother of a 15-month-old daughter — who is, she said, "hilarious." Her friend Lehane, who also has a baby daughter, told her that raising a child from infancy would change her as a writer. She reacted "with hubris" at first, only to realize that Lehane was right.

"I didn't write kids differently because I had always written kids as fully fleshed-out characters," she said. "And I'd been a kid, so what would change? But it turned out that I had a lot more empathy for parents."

The first section she composed after the arrival of her daughter focused on the kids' mothers and fathers. Finding the hidden facets in beleaguered grown-ups — in a 10-chapter run of revelations — made it Lippman's toughest but also most rewarding stretch of writing yet.

The same kind of growth has kept Lippman from rattling off one Tess Monaghan adventure after another. Tess was pregnant in "The Girl in the Green Raincoat" (2011), and she brings a blast of irreverent energy to the final chapters of the new book, holding her baby, Carla Scout, in her arms. But Lippman is still grappling with the challenge of depicting a mother in a job that puts her in harm's way.

"A lot of male writers, myself included, are father/son-obsessed," Lehane said. "But what I've noticed in Laura's later books is the weird absence, not of mothers, but of mothering that goes on in Laura's stories. It's really fascinating, and I don't know if she's aware of it. She's creating this amazing look at a feminine landscape in her later books, asking what it is to be a woman and a girl, while also putting this other thing into play — a darker psychodrama about the absence of maternalism."

Writing crime fiction has liberated Lippman. It allows her to comment on everything from family dynamics and sexual stereotypes to regional mores and America's understudied class structure — without getting pretentious or didactic.

"You can put everything into crime fiction because the details really matter," she said over a beer and a grilled-cheese sandwich at Monaghan's Pub. "People are looking at everything: the glove dropped on the step, what's cooking on the stove. Everything could be relevant. Everything matters — until it doesn't."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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