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'A Dangerous Business' is an entertaining, Poe-inspired murder mystery

A Dangerous Business cover
Knopf

Since the completion in 2015 of her ambitious multi-generational family saga, The Last Hundred Years trilogy, Jane Smiley has loosened up with two fun novels.

A Dangerous Business is an entertaining, light murder mystery set in Monterey, California, in 1851 during the Gold Rush. It follows Perestroika in Paris, Smiley's charming, whimsical fable about various squabbling, talking animals (including the titular racehorse) living in the rough in Paris' Champs du Mars.

The setup of her latest: Two young prostitutes become uneasy when several women in their dangerous line of business disappear and neither the sheriff nor the local vigilantes seem to care. Risking further peril, they decide it's up to them to solve the mystery.

Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Eliza and Jean — one a young widow relieved to be rid of her abusive older husband, the other an adventurous, shape-shifting cross-dresser with a dark secret in her past — are determined to deploy logic and observation in the manner of Poe's Detective Dupin to figure out who killed their missing colleagues.

With few options for self-supporting employment, Eliza turned to sex work after her husband died in a bar brawl. She finds it preferable to the miserable marriage her Covenanter parents pushed her into to nip her budding romance with an Irish Catholic laborer back home in Kalamazoo.

Her madam, Mrs. Parks, is far kinder and more protective than either her husband or parents ever were — and so are most of her clients. Eliza has no intention of returning home to Michigan.

Jean, Eliza's sidekick, is a less fleshed-out character; she works in an establishment that caters to women — most of whom are sorely in need of some affection. The existence of such a brothel in 19th century Monterey strains credulity but, as with other historically questionable details in this novel, it doesn't impair its enjoyment.

Smiley's likeable protagonists appreciate the relative independence and financial security of their work. Again, somewhat dubiously, they are not just tolerant of but sympathetic to their clients' loneliness and physical needs, which leads to a surprisingly benign view of working in a brothel.

No soliciting for them: Eliza's male clients are carefully vetted by Mrs. Parks, who also employs a guard for her "girls'" protection. Yes, the novel makes clear that it's a dangerous business — but, Mrs. Parks reminds Eliza, so is being a woman. Smiley's characters treat their work matter-of-factly, as just another service industry, like housecleaning or plumbing, albeit with better pay.

The amateur sleuths, being Smiley characters, love horses — which they rent on their days off in order to head out of town to the surrounding canyons and woods in search of clues. What they find in them thar hills isn't gold.

As the bodies and clues pile up, Eliza becomes suspicious of all of her clients — the drunks, the lonely lechers, the sex-starved sailors, the talkative lawyer with a dagger in his jacket pocket, "the evangelical who wept and puked and passed out." She even starts to doubt the friendly young rancher who likes to take her out for breakfast, as if they were "a respectable couple."

Many nights, after her "business" hours, Eliza is too spooked to walk back to her boarding house along deserted streets thick with fog. To amp up the sense of menace, Smiley throws in some grisly corpses and a few purported ghost sightings. Even so, the overall effect isn't nearly as creepy as Poe's tales. Smiley keeps it light by not playing up the psychological aspects of her story, and her sensible duo don't seem terribly shaken by any of it. The result is a sort of perfumed Poe-pourri.

Of course, this is not the first time that Smiley has found inspiration in classic fiction. The template for A Thousand Acres, her 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winner, was Shakespeare's King Lear. Ten Days in the Hills was her take on Boccaccio's Decameron. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton was her answer to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A theme running through most of her work — including A Dangerous Business — is that lives are a mixture of good luck and bad, best navigated by improvising and remaining light on one's feet.

Smiley's latest is a bildungsroman as well as a murder mystery. Eliza, initially ignorant of so much, is uneducated but by no means stupid. She picks up knowledge everywhere: from her clients fresh off ships from around the world, from books they give her, like David Copperfield and A Scarlet Letter, and from overheard conversations about America's divide over slavery and the growing probability of civil war.

Eliza's determination to see the larger picture opens up the world to her. She is a young woman trying to define herself in a young country doing the same. Smiley wryly notes that her character comes to realize that "life had turned out to be more complex than even she, in her business, had expected."

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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