Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf)
Read Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Small after a fall season of great books by John Irving, Cormac McCarthy, and Barbara Kingsolver Leigh (“A Thousand Acres”) is a refreshingly intense tale.
Set in Monterey, California, about a decade before the Civil War, the dangerous industry in the title is prostitution. Female workers Eliza and Jane run a business in two brothels in the coastal town, one for men and the other for women. After the bodies of young women are discovered, they use what they’ve learned from reading Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery novels to try to solve the murders.
If they try to piece together clues, their clients will start to look more and more suspicious, even if business goes on as usual. Mrs. Mrs. Parks, who runs Eliza’s company, quotes this quote on the book’s prologue page, telling Eliza: “Between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous job. Don’t let anyone tell you anything else. .”
In fact, as the plot unfolds, it’s remarkable what people survived in the 1850s. Eliza’s abusive husband Peter – shot dead in a tavern about two months before the events of the novel – is not missed and the killer is still at large. No one is looking for the missing girl’s killer either, so Eliza and Joan spend their time following leads, traveling long distances and riding horseback to investigate the crime scene and watch for possible suspects.
The interplay between the two young women is at the heart of the story. Growing up into a world that sees them only as potential mothers or stewards, they find purpose and grow confidently in the pursuit of justice. “There was much to learn in California,” Smiley wrote, “and Eliza was ready to learn all sorts of things—the names of the birds, the people she saw around her and the adventures of her customers… But one thing she knows is how fast death comes… True friendships are rarer and therefore more terrifying, like the one she had with Jen.”
At 208 pages, the novel is fast-paced. Feels like Smiley could dig out more stories from Monterey in 1854. Enough interesting characters moving in and out of Eliza’s brothel bedroom are enough to justify a series of novels. If there’s anything like “A Dangerous Business,” they’re really good stories.