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Jane Smiley and Shelby Van Pelt’s Mysteries Push the Boundaries: NPR

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A Dangerous Business, by Jane Smiley

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Jane Smiley and Shelby Van Pelt's Mysteries Push the Boundaries: NPR

A Dangerous Business, by Jane Smiley

Random penguin house

For holiday gifts or reading, I have two non-traditional mysteries to recommend: one is gender; the other features a detective who specializes in underwater investigations.

Jane Smiley has changed form throughout her long career: her fiction has covered national dramas like her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, thousand acres; to his academic satire, moo; to Nordic speculative history in The Greenlanders. Her latest novel is a mix of a western, a serial killer mystery and a feminist erotic frolic.

A dangerous business is set in Monterey, California during the Gold Rush era. The heroine Eliza Ripple is a young widow whose brutal husband was killed in a bar fight. Eliza shed no tears; in fact, she is happy to make a living in a local brothel. Not since Miss Kitty on Smoke hosted Marshal Dillon, Chester and Doc every night at the Longbranch Saloon, life in a bawdy house seemed so lovable.

But the atmosphere quickly turns from dicey to downright dicey after two fellow workers go missing. Eliza’s boss, a lady who exudes the world-weary wisdom of someone who’s been around the neighborhood more than once, tells her, “Between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Around the same time, Eliza befriends another young woman named Jean who offers her services to “The Pearly Gates”, a brothel that “frequents[s] to the needs of ladies, not men. Jean sometimes wears men’s clothes and takes advantage of male privileges, such as taking Eliza for long walks to the docks and the surrounding woods. She also introduces Eliza to Edgar Allan Poe’s detective novels, beginning with “The Rue Morgue Murders.” Soon, Eliza and Jean will impersonate Poe’s detective, Monsieur Dupin, as they take it upon themselves to investigate the mystery of the missing girls – a mystery that the male authorities of Monterey are content to ignore.

The solution to the serial murders turns out to be “quite unexpected”; but it is really the story of Eliza that holds the attention: a woman stranded on the edge of the Pacific who is determined to preserve her new autonomy.

Remarkably Brilliant Creatures, by Shelby Van Pelt
Remarkably Brilliant Creatures, by Shelby Van Pelt

I missed Shelby Van Pelt’s first novel Remarkably bright creatures when it came out last May, but its weird premise kept calling me. An elderly woman named Tova works night shifts at an aquarium in Puget Sound; she doesn’t need the job, but scrubbing floors and fish tanks keeps her from thinking about her teenage son’s disappearance 30 years ago.

Watching Tova from her tank is the aquarium’s main attraction – a giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus. One night, Tova frees Marcellus from a near-fatal entanglement with a power cord; in return, Marcellus silently decides to use his knowledge of the sea and his superior memory of faces and objects to help Tova discover the truth about his son’s fate.

I had my doubts about this janitor sleuth and tentacle sleuth duo: I thought maybe it was too cute. But, as Marcellus might joke, I sucked for thinking so. Her voice, which alternates with chapters featuring Tova and other characters, is contemptuous and sad. Here is an excerpt from Marcellus’ introduction:

Every evening, I wait for the overhead lights to click, leaving only the glow of the main tank. Not perfect, but close enough.

Almost darkness, like the middle of the bottom of the sea. I lived there before I was captured and imprisoned. …

I must inform you that our time together may be brief. The brochure [on my tank] states…the average lifespan of a giant pacific octopus. Four years. …

I was brought here as a minor. I will die here, in this tank. At most, one hundred and sixty days remain until my sentence is over.

Like a noir detective, Marcellus stares death’s ultimate deadline in the eye and doesn’t blink. These two strange and freshly imagined stories go further into uncharted territory for detective fiction.

Jane Smiley and Shelby Van Pelt's Mysteries Push the Boundaries: NPR

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