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Review | Jane Smiley’s latest is full of surprises, beginning with its premise


Now right here’s one thing you don’t come throughout every single day: a mash-up of a Western, a serial-killer thriller and a feminist-inflected story of life in a bordello. However Jane Smiley’s “A Dangerous Business” is all that — and, amazingly, it really works.

The novel is ready within the wide-open city of Monterey, Calif., in 1852. Heroine Eliza Ripple (previously Cargill) is a latest widow. Again house in Kalamazoo just a few years earlier, the teenage Eliza was pushed into marriage by her dad and mom, who have been dazzled by the social and monetary credentials of a good-looking stranger on the town named Peter.

Predictably, Peter turned out to be a con man — and one who was sexually brutish to Eliza, as well. Entranced by the mirage of the Gold Rush, Peter dragged Eliza to Monterey, the place he was promptly shot in a bar combat. Eliza didn’t shed many tears. Certainly, widowhood improved her private and monetary scenario: “She was now incomes her residing (and a great residing!) in Monterey.”

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Eliza’s new place of employment is a bordello run by a Mrs. Parks, one in all many such institutions in boomtown Monterey the place there have been “maybe eight or 9 fellows for each girl — and everybody bought alongside properly sufficient.” Not since Miss Kitty of “Gunsmoke” hosted Marshal Dillon, Chester and Doc each night time on the Lengthy Department Saloon in Dodge Metropolis has life in a bawdy home appeared so amiable. (Absolutely you didn’t assume Miss Kitty and her “ladies” have been simply serving up beers to all these cowpokes, did you?)

However the environment shifts from risque to downright dangerous after two younger ladies from rival institutions go lacking and different unsettling discoveries in and round Monterey come to gentle. Mrs. Parks exudes the world-weary knowledge of a lady who’s been across the block just a few instances. “Between you and me,” she tells Eliza, “being a lady is a harmful enterprise, and don’t let anybody let you know in any other case.”

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Across the similar time, Eliza is befriended by one other younger girl named Jean who proffers her providers on the Pearly Gates, a bordello that “attend[s] to the wants of women, not males.” Jean typically wears males’s garments and avails herself of male privileges, taking Eliza on lengthy walks all the way down to the docks and into the encircling woodlands. She additionally introduces Eliza to Edgar Allan Poe’s detective tales, beginning with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Enthusiastic about the deductive mastery of Poe’s detective, Auguste Dupin, “Eliza … was impressed largely by the concept that a prepare of logic might result in one thing totally sudden.” Quickly sufficient, Eliza and Jean shall be emulating Monsieur Dupin as they take it upon themselves to analyze the thriller of the lacking ladies — a thriller the male authorities in Monterey are content material to disregard.

All through her lengthy profession, Smiley (whose novel “A Thousand Acres” gained a Pulitzer in 1992) has been a form shifter, difficult herself to put in writing in myriad literary genres. Her fiction has taken the type of tutorial satire (“Moo”) and speculative Norse historical past (“The Greenlanders”); she’s written young-adult novels and a biography of Charles Dickens, amongst different nonfiction. Smiley has even tackled this era in American historical past earlier than, in her novel “The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton,” set within the Kansas territory.

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In “A Harmful Enterprise,” Smiley easily melds three distinct narratives into one with out breaking a sweat. (There’s loads of sweat concerned, nevertheless, in Eliza’s working nights at Mrs. Parks’s institution, the place the phrase “he needed to do his enterprise” discreetly covers myriad erotic encounters.) The answer to the serial killings of different prostitutes, as in Poe’s tales, certainly seems to be “totally sudden”; however it’s actually Eliza’s story — the adventures of a resourceful younger girl stranded on the fringe of the Pacific who is decided to carry onto her newfound autonomy — that instructions consideration. Although the ghastly goings-on in Monterey awaken Eliza to the benefit with which ladies with out connections can vanish, she’s decided to not return to Kalamazoo. In true pioneer custom, Eliza has religion that no matter lies forward needs to be preferable to what got here earlier than.

Maureen Corrigan, who’s the guide critic for the NPR program “Contemporary Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown College.

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