Book Review for “A Dangerous Business” by Jane Smiley.
Summary: “Monterey, 1851. Ever since her husband was killed in a bar fight, Eliza Ripple has been working in a brothel. It seems like a better life, at least at first. The madam, Mrs. Parks, is kind, the men are (relatively) well behaved, and Eliza has attained what few women have: financial security. But when the dead bodies of young women start appearing outside of town, a darkness descends that she can’t resist confronting. Side by side with her friend Jean, and inspired by her reading, especially by Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Dupin, Eliza pieces together an array of clues to try to catch the killer, all the while juggling clients who begin to seem more and more suspicious. Eliza and Jean are determined not just to survive, but to find their way in a lawless town on the fringes of the Wild West—a bewitching combination of beauty and danger—as what will become the Civil War looms on the horizon. As Mrs. Parks says, “Everyone knows that this is a dangerous business, but between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise …””
Age: Adult; Genres: Murder Mystery, Fiction; Settings: Historical – Gold Rush Era, USA – Monterey, California; Other Categories: Novel, Women.
Let’s start out with how one blurb called this a “rollicking murder mystery.” Rollicking? Really? Because this novel was anything BUT rollicking. I mean, it is probably the slowest moving murder mystery novel I’ve ever read, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially not when we’re talking about Jane Smiley, whose writing is like liquid velvet. (No wonder she won a Pulitzer.) I’m not even going to call this a cozy mystery novel, because for me, those are usually tinged with a good measure of humor. This book isn’t humorous at all, and in fact, it is fairly sad in many ways. You see, here we have two women, on their own, both working as prostitutes, one of them for men and the other for women, in the middle of the 19th century in a sea port town on the coast of California. What’s more, the town has no law enforcement to speak of, so when someone goes missing, no one seems to care. Even when these women find dead bodies, there’s only a cursory investigation into these deaths.
With all of this, it seems to me that maybe calling this a murder mystery novel might not be as accurate as it seems. If we come right down to it, these girls’ investigations are more of a backdrop to paint portraits of these women, and look into their personalities and their friendship. It is also an interesting study of mid-19th century American life, and the difficulties women on their own faced back then, especially in such remote areas of the country. Since this story is told from Eliza’s viewpoint, we also get to discover a bit about the life of sex-workers at that time. Mind you, Smiley puts Eliza into an establishment where the proprietor is not only female, but one who also makes sure her girls are clean, healthy, and safe, while treating them with respect and kindness. I’m sure that this would have been an anomaly for brothels of that era, but not one that sounds unreasonably believable, no matter how rare.
Now, just so you know, I’m actually having a hard time writing this review. You see, on the one hand, as expected, the writing here was just amazing. Smiley really knows how to use language to set up a scene, and create an atmosphere, which all evoke not only sights, but tastes and smells. I mean, I had these images in my mind of sepia tainted scenes that held throughout my reading. I could also feel mud sticking to my shoes when the weather was wet in the town. Not to mention the mixture of scents that I imagined were surrounding Eliza as she was seated in one eating establishment or another. Smiley’s prose is nothing short of magical, when it comes to that. However, on the other hand, this is hardly a story that will get your blood racing, even when the plot thickens (so to speak) and we find out “who done it.” Then again, as already mentioned, the portrait of Eliza that Smiley gives us makes the feel almost like a character driven novel, and not a plot driven one, which is usually the case with murder mystery novels.
So, how do I resolve this? Well, as far as the writing style is concerned, this would get a full 5/5 stars, if that was my only criteria. If I take in the pacing of this book, I’d have to give it only three. As for the character development, as much as I liked Eliza, I’m afraid I didn’t fall in love with her, and I also had some difficulty in picturing her face, and yet… well, more like four stars. All this averages out to a solid four stars out of five rating, and a warm recommendation to historical fiction fans (especially those who are looking for a non-world war novel that has only one timeline), as well as readers who are looking for strong female characters without any of the shackles of angsty romance stories.
Knopf released “A Dangerous Business” by Jane Smiley on December 6, 2022. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Blackwell‘s, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.