Since the completion in 2015 of its ambitious multi-generational family saga, The last hundred years trilogy, Jane Smiley relaxed with two fun novels.
A dangerous business is an entertaining and lighthearted murder mystery set in Monterey, California in 1851 during the Gold Rush. It follows Perestroika in ParisSmiley’s charming and whimsical fable about various bickering and talking animals (including the titular racehorse) living in the raw on the Champs du Mars in Paris.
The Setup of His Latest: Two young prostitutes become uneasy when several women in their dangerous line of business go missing and neither the local sheriff nor vigilantes seem to care. Risking more peril, they decide it’s up to them to solve the mystery.
Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Rue Morgue Murders”, Eliza and Jean – one a young widow relieved to be rid of her abusive husband, the other an adventurous and changeable transvestite with a dark secret in her past – are determined to deploy logic and observation in the style of Poe’s Detective Dupin to find out who killed their missing colleagues.
With few options for self-employment, Eliza turned to sex work after her husband died in a bar fight. She finds this preferable to the miserable marriage her Covenanter parents pushed her into to stifle her budding romance with an Irish Catholic laborer in Kalamazoo.
His madam, Mrs. Parks, is much kinder and more protective than her husband or parents ever were – as are most of her customers. Eliza has no plans to return 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 in dire need of affection. The existence of such a brothel in 19th-century Monterey strains credulity but, as with other historically questionable details of this novel, it does not detract from one’s enjoyment.
The friendly protagonists of Smiley appreciate the relative independence and financial security of their work. Again, somewhat dubiously, they are not just tolerant but sympathetic to the loneliness and physical needs of their clients, leading to a surprisingly benign view of working in a brothel.
No solicitation for them: Eliza’s male clients are carefully vetted by Mrs. Parks, who also employs a guard for the protection of her “daughters”. Yes, the novel makes it clear that it’s a dangerous business – but, Ms. Parks reminds Eliza, so is being a woman. Smiley characters treat their job neutrally, like another service industry, like cleaning or plumbing, but with better pay.
Amateur sleuths, being Smiley characters, love horses – which they hire on their days off in order to ride out of town into the surrounding canyons and woods in search of clues. What they find in these hills is not gold.
As the bodies and clues pile up, Eliza grows suspicious of all her clients – the drunks, the lustful loners, the sex-starved sailors, the talkative lawyer with a dagger in his jacket pocket, “the evangelical who cried, vomited and passed out.” She even begins to doubt the friendly young breeder who likes to take her to lunch at the restaurant, as if they were “a respectable couple”.
Many nights, after her “work” hours, Eliza is too scared to return to her boarding house along deserted, fog-covered streets. To amp up the sense of threat, Smiley throws in gruesome corpses and some alleged ghost sightings. Even so, the overall effect isn’t quite as scary as Poe’s tales. Smiley keeps it light by not playing on the psychological aspects of her story, and her sensible duo don’t seem terribly shaken by it all. The result is a kind of fragrant Poe-pourri.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Smiley has drawn inspiration from classic fiction. The model for Thousand Acres, its 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, was Shakespeare’s King Lear. Ten days in the hills was his view on Boccaccio Decameron. The True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton was his response to Mark Twain Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A theme that runs through most of his work – including A dangerous business – is that lives are a mixture of luck and bad luck, best navigated by improvising and staying light on your feet.
The Last of Smiley is a bildungsroman as well as a murder mystery. Eliza, initially ignorant of so much, is uneducated but by no means stupid. She acquires knowledge everywhere: from her clients fresh off the ships from all over the world, from the books they give her, such as David Copperfield and A scarlet letter, and overheard conversations about the division of America over slavery and the growing likelihood of civil war.
Eliza’s determination to see the bigger picture opens up the world to her. She is a young woman trying to define herself in a young country that is doing the same. Smiley wryly notes that her character realizes that “life has turned out to be more complex than even she, in her business, anticipated”.