It seems odd to call a novel about prostitution and murder light, but "A Dangerous Business," Jane Smiley's umpteenth book, oddly is. In 1851 Eliza Ripple is married off to a man who's not nearly as rich as he's made out to be, but far more brutal than he seems. So when, after moving her to the rough, sunny California boomtown of Monterey, he's shot dead in a saloon, she takes a job in a brothel, naturally, where the work of servicing men's desires is far more orderly and, under the watchful eye of the motherly madam, Mrs. Parks, far more safe.
Eliza's plucky friend Jean is also in the sex trade, but in the much more civilized business of servicing women, and "almost all they want is affection, and time and relief from their daily round." Jean is also a gifted actress, impersonating men and women of various sorts at whim.
In the background is the building tension over slavery, alluded to when Eliza's customers speculate that there'll be a war and when Jean confides in Eliza about her origins. In the foreground is the mystery of girls who won't be missed, i.e., prostitutes, going missing. When one of them surfaces in a river, and then Eliza and Jean stumble on another on one of their walks, the two women, primed by the work of Poe — specifically "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" — resolve to make like "DuPANN" and detect the culprit. This, as Eliza says, "is a dangerous business."
But, as Jean smartly replies, "What isn't?"
Well, apparently, prostitution, which Eliza, coming from a strictly religious family in Kalamazoo, takes to in a remarkably matter-of-fact manner. Actually, it might be more apt to describe Eliza's approach as businesslike, because "business" is what her clients do with her.
She might "let him do his business twice" or run his hand through her hair "while he was doing his business" or worry with a "drunk whether he could get his business done" or make accommodations when he "couldn't do his business in the usual way" or give a man credit if he "was gentle when he went about his business."
Though Mrs. Parks tells Eliza, "Everyone knows that this is a dangerous business, but, between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business," there is, in Smiley's telling of her story, a certain straightforwardness and simplicity that make it seem, even at the height of the drama of unmasking a murderer, decidedly safe.
It's light, as I said, for all the weightiness of its subject — but entertaining, nonetheless. And even so, Eliza reflects, "life had turned out to be more complex than even she, in her business, had expected."
Ellen Akins is a writer, editor and teacher of writing in Wisconsin.
A Dangerous Business
By: Jane Smiley.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 210 pages, $28.