Disappearance of brothel women sleuthed in Smiley’s gold rush-era novel
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‘Everybody 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.”
So says Mrs. Parks, the madam in one of Monterey, Calif.’s brothels, back in 1851. She is speaking to Eliza Ripple, a 20-year-old woman who has come to work there, now that her 40-year-old husband Peter Cargill has been shot and killed in a bar fight. This at a time when there is still slavery in the South, 10 years before the American Civil War.
Eliza is the main character in prolific California novelist Jane Smiley’s latest, A Dangerous Business. Eliza’s Kalamazoo, Mich., parents — ardent members of the Covenanter religion — had arranged the marriage to Peter, sure that he’d be far more successful than Eliza’s Irish Catholic boyfriend. Peter moved Eliza to Monterey, treating her like a servant and leading her parents to believe that he was going to become rich in the Gold Rush.
Much of the novel consists of expository writing — telling rather than showing. But Smiley, who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Thousand Acres, is such an accomplished storyteller, her rapid presentation of plot details is never dull.
Not at all heartbroken by Peter’s death, Eliza quickly adapts to life in Monterey, living in a rooming house and working most nights at Mrs. Parks’. She gradually learns that “a brothel was not a secret, of course, but it had to pretend to be a secret.” Under the tutelage of Mrs. Parks, Eliza soon likes her job, especially the variety of her customers. Some of the sailors who visit the brothel while their ships dock at Monterey are mere teenagers, but there are lots of other men of all ages.
Smiley often describes a customer’s interaction with Eliza as “doing his business,” sure that she’ll get a laugh from contemporary readers who use the same expression for “going to the bathroom.”
One of the highlights of the novel for both Eliza and the reader is the variety of men: “The great benefit of her trade was that, now that she had seen so many men, they had become more interesting to her, in all the ways they were alike as well as in all the ways they were different,” Smiley writes.
The novel could be satisfying with that element alone, but early on Eliza learns of young brothel women who have gone missing and been found dead. When it appears the local sheriff doesn’t concern himself with such developments, Eliza and a friend named Jean dare to do some investigating of their own.
Jean is another intriguing character — she works in a brothel for women customers. This place employs other women, not men, usually offering comfort and relaxation, but Jean shows she can do a good imitation of a man if needed.
The novel takes on the feel of a whodunit. Jean and Eliza are both fans of author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) and his fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin. They try to approach the mystery with Dupin’s logic and observation.
Eliza becomes suspicious of one of her customers, a lawyer — she “felt a slight uneasiness, as she sometimes did when a customer seemed to take too much of a liking for her.” She decides that he is “pleasant enough — he didn’t insist that she parade around the room unclothed or allow him to touch some odd place, like her foot, over and over.” But later when she accidentally touches his jacket, she feels what she is sure is a dagger in the pocket.
Jane Smiley’s A Dangerous Business is a playful and enjoyable read featuring a bright young woman you want to cheer to the end.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg author whose latest short story, Reading on an Airplane, is in the current issue of Prairie Fire magazine.