Thursday, December 01, 2022

In Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business, two enterprising women unravel crimes in Gold Rush-era California

In Smiley’s short but impactful latest, two sex workers get caught up in a crime-novel scenario, one calling to mind the Edgar Allan Poe stories they devour, and decide to solve the murders before they become victims themselves.

In 1852, the small town of Monterey, California, bubbles with prosperity and secrets. New arrivals pour in, seeking fortunes or a new start; people depart just as frequently.

Eliza Ripple, a young widow from Kalamazoo who doesn’t miss her abusive husband one whit, has settled in at her job at Mrs. Parks’s brothel. She makes a good living, and the proprietress looks out for her health and safety. Then the first girl disappears, prompting Mrs. Parks to hire a bouncer, Carlos, a kind Mexican immigrant.

The community, which relies on informal (vigilante) justice since they don’t have constables, decides the missing-person crime isn’t worth the bother. Other disappearances follow, bodies are found, and Eliza and her best friend, Jean—a fellow prostitute working at an establishment serving other women—grow concerned. How would Poe’s hero Dupin (or DuPANN, as Eliza calls him) handle this?

Rich in wit and human observation, Smiley’s telling is as matter-of-fact as Eliza’s approach to her profession. While Eliza is skilled, her encounters aren’t erotic and illustrate much about all the characters. Among her clients are farmers, a shy teenager, many sailors, and older men, all with their own preferences. With a killer still at large, Eliza analyzes each man carefully, wondering if he’s guilty.

“Being a woman is a dangerous business,” Mrs. Parks tells her, accurately, and Eliza grows annoyed at having to uncover the truth because nobody else cares. As heroic, self-reliant young women who accomplish what needs doing, she and Jean make great partners in a town where a supportive female network is the key to success and survival.

Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business is published on December 6th by Knopf.  In the UK, it will be published by Abacus in January 2023. I'd reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review. I believe this is my first time reading one of the author's novels since The Greenlanders, a literary epic set in the 14th century (fascinating and grim, as I recall).

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