“A Dangerous Business” by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf)
After a fall publishing season filled with Big Books by John Irving, Cormac McCarthy and Barbara Kingsolver, to name just a few, it’s refreshing to read this taut tale from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley (“A Thousand Acres”).
Set in Monterey, California, about a decade before the Civil War, the dangerous business of the title is prostitution. Working girls Eliza and Jean ply their trade at two brothels in the coastal town, one for men, and one for women. When the bodies of young women are discovered, they begin to apply what they’ve learned reading Edgar Allan Poe mysteries to try and solve the murders.
As they attempt to piece together clues, their clients start to look more and more suspicious, even as business proceeds as normal. Mrs. Parks, the madame who runs Eliza’s establishment, utters the quote on the book’s preface page, telling Eliza: “Between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Indeed, as the plot unfolds, it’s remarkable what people got away with in the 1850s. Eliza’s abusive husband, Peter — who was shot to death in a saloon about two months before the events of the novel — is not missed by anyone and his killer remains at large. There is no posse searching for who killed the missing girls, either, so Eliza and Jean take their time following up on leads, going for long walks and horseback rides to investigate crime scenes and observe possible suspects.
The interplay between the two young women is the heart of the story. Maturing into a world that values them only as potential mothers or housekeepers, they find purpose and grow in confidence as they pursue justice. “There was plenty to be learned in California,” writes Smiley, “and Eliza was ready to learn all sorts of things — the names of birds, the adventures of the people she saw around her and of her customers … But one thing she had learned was how quickly death comes … What came much more rarely, and was therefore a little scarier, was true friendship, of the sort she had with Jean.”
At 208 pages, the novel’s pace is quick. It feels like Smiley could mine more stories out of Monterey in 1854. Enough interesting characters enter and exit Eliza’s brothel bedroom to justify a series of novels. If anything like “A Dangerous Business,” they’d be fine stories indeed.