Book Review: All the Dangerous Things by Stacy Willingham
By John ValeriJanuary 3, 2023
Stacy Willingham emerged as a bright star in the bookish universe with 2021’s A Flicker in the Dark, her debut novel of psychological suspense. That title became an instant New York Times bestseller and was translated in more than thirty countries. Willingham—a former copywriter and brand strategist who holds degrees in magazine journalism and writing from the University of Georgia and Savannah College of Art and Design, respectively—makes her highly anticipated return with a new standalone, All the Dangerous Things.
NOW: It’s been one year since Isabelle (“Izzy”) Drake’s toddler son, Mason, went missing from their Savannah home in the dark of night. Having since separated from her husband, Ben—first her boss, then her lover—and become the subject of gossip and innuendo, she has come to a tenuous truce with crime culture in the hopes of keeping her son’s case (and memory) alive in the public eye. After delivering the keynote at TrueCrimeCon she meets podcaster Waylon Spencer, whose gentle demeanor and impressive track record win her over. And while their collaboration seems promising to begin with, Isabelle soon finds herself questioning Waylon’s motives. Could he believe her responsible for her son’s disappearance? It’s not only a disturbing breach of trust but a suspicion that she herself secretly shares.
THEN: Isabelle—plagued by inexplicable bouts of sleepwalking that leave her younger sister, Margaret, scared—often finds herself in a state of disorientation. Dirty skin. Soiled clothing. Wet carpet. The cloying heat of summer in the South doesn’t help, nor does the deteriorating state of her parents’ marriage. Her father, a state senator, is seldom home; her mother, an artist, is distant—and noticeably terrified of…something (or somebody). So it’s largely up to Isabelle to keep an eye on Margaret, who would follow her anywhere, so deep and implicit is her trust. But their house—an opulent mansion, seemingly occupied more for public scrutiny than private sanctuary—is the keeper of secrets and sorrows. And when tragedy strikes, a conspiracy of silence will haunt the family forevermore.
The narrative unfolds in NOW/THEN fashion—and even the contemporary chapters are rife with ruminations, which often muddy the waters rather than clarifying them. Severely sleep deprived, Isabelle nevertheless persists in her quest for answers, despite the protestations of her (soon-to-be ex) husband and local law enforcement, who fear that her intrusions will jeopardize their investigation. And even if it means unearthing a shattering truth. Past and present converge as she confronts memories, both real and imagined, that reveal a startling-if-sketchy picture of what may have happened to her son. But as these fragments finally come into sharper focus, so does a mother’s worst fear. It’s not just a question of who or what she can trust, but whether she can trust herself.
Stacy Willingham’s All the Dangerous Things is stellar suspense at its very best. More than a crime story (though it’s certainly that), the book is also contemplation of motherhood, sisterhood, womanhood. Rather than falling victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, the author takes the best elements of her debut (complex characters, atmospheric setting, faulty memory, toxic secrets) and amplifies them to dizzying effect. All the pieces are there, yet every time you think you’ve put them together, she rearranges them into something more salient and shocking. Simply put: If you liked A Flicker in the Dark, you’ll love All the Dangerous Things. It may only be the first month of 2023, but this one will rightfully find itself on many a year-end, best-of list.