A dangerous business
By Jane Smiley
Button: 224 pages, $28
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Eliza was free. Dragged west from Michigan by her tyrannical husband to gold-rush California, freed by a bullet that left her a widow, she contemplated her future in the windswept port city of Monterey. She didn’t miss her husband, who before his death “had made it clear that, whether she liked it or not, he intended to put it in front of her once or twice a day.” She did not miss her strict Christian parents. She didn’t miss Kalamazoo.
Eliza’s options were limited. The logical next step for a destitute woman was prostitution, and she took it up with no regrets. The widow known as Eliza Cargill became the whore Eliza Ripple. She found work in a high-class brothel and, happily free from the conventional obligations of woman, served a wide range of clients, from teenage virgins to frail old men. She even found a boyfriend. Life seemed bearable, even better, until other prostitutes, nameless young women who no one seemed to miss, started disappearing.
This is the structure of Jane Smiley’s A Dangerous Business. Smiley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Thousand Acres” and many other novels, lives in Monterey County, and her new book pays homage to her homeland’s frontier past, when Monterey was an eclectic mix of banks, bars, and brothels was. a magnet for sailors, crooks and adventurers, surrounded by rolling hills and trackless hinterland. This is a cleverly constructed historical novel, but it’s also a crime thriller – and in that regard the results have been mixed.
Eliza’s urge to uncover the truth behind the disappearance begins with a literary argument with her friend Jean, a cross-dressing prostitute and adventurer who serves women. The subject of their dispute: Edgar Allan Poe, a horror writer whose short stories gave Americans goosebumps from coast to coast. Fast Friends, “the only thing they didn’t agree on was Mr. Poe’s work, the work Jean loved and Eliza didn’t like at all as it was too weird and made her nervous.” Yes, Jean said, that was the point, and she never minded having the nervousness. At least that was better than feeling down; it made you curious.”
Curiosity can get a woman into trouble, but as Eliza reads, she begins to warm to Mr. Poe and his detective C. Auguste Dupin, and finds something in her own makeup that reflects the Frenchman’s cold, logical mind . As more bodies are found, Eliza and Jean are drawn into their own investigation. They have a knack for seeing what others can’t see — a stained glove, a hood cord, a dead body without “baby fingers” — but they’re hampered by the fact that Monterey citizens don’t care about the victims and it neither are sorry to see them disappear.
The law as it exists in the border state of California does nothing. Even Mrs. Parks, Eliza’s employer, warns Eliza to shut up. Like serial killers throughout history, the Monterey Killer preys on people who have severed ties with someone who could report their loss. Even politics play a role: Eliza admits that “all of this could be an excuse to put Mrs. Parks out of business and jail all the girls.” So Eliza and Jean patrol the streets and ride the hills above the city in search of corpses and clues.
Smiley has created several appealing characters. She vividly recalls the political turmoil of the 1850s, when the country’s unity was threatened by the pernicious practice of slavery and even citizens of far western California were dragged into turbulent debates about its future. Her wry sense of humor is a common thread, and it must be said that Smiley, a lifelong horse owner, writes some of the finest horses in literature.
But the tension in this story is like a boiling kettle that never quite boils. There are walks, talks and discoveries; however, the sense of threat is muted. Another ingredient in the subtle, dreamlike quality of the narration is Eliza’s detachment, which is burned into her personality and reinforced by her profession. Eliza is a keen observer of men and a kind person, but the nature of her work requires her to withdraw. What drives them apart from the need to protect themselves and survive? What brings them over the edge and into a confrontation with danger? It’s not entirely clear.
On the other hand, Eliza’s detachment is her greatest asset; it helps her rise above the horrors she and Jean face. After a dear friend is murdered, Eliza thinks of Poe’s detective and seeks guidance and strength in the author’s words: “What struck her most about Dupin was that he could look at all kinds of injuries and destruction and still think about them , which you could call in a cold and logical way.” She’s learning to use her head and master fear: “It was like she’d been stupid and patient all her life, like a dairy cow. Now she remembered Query flapping his ears but trudging on. She felt her fear melt away as the morning fog bank retreated into the bay and the sun lit up the sky.”
When A Dangerous Business falters as a crime thriller, it fares better as historical fiction. The title comes from Mrs. Parks. “Everyone knows this is a dangerous business,” she tells Eliza, “but between us, being a woman is a dangerous business and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Smiley recreates a world in which women – whether wives, daughters or prostitutes – are coerced, their movements restricted, their opinions rejected, their existence threatened. As such, A Dangerous Business achieves the goal of all worthy historical novels: to open a window into the past, to force comparisons with the present, to raise troubling questions about how much has really changed.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based in Seattle, writes about books and authors.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-11-30/jane-smileys-latest-a-gold-rush-era-california-sex-worker-mystery Jane Smiley’s new California mystery ‘A Dangerous Business’