Jane Smiley’s newest novel A Dangerous Business begins in the 1850s. The Gold Rush is in full swing as the American Civil War begins bubbling to the surface of society. Eliza literally makes a name for herself—changing her last name from Cargill to Ripple—by seeking employment at a brothel in Monterey, California after the violent death of her husband. Life gets fairly easy for Eliza despite the volatile economy. She has steady room and board, a full stomach, and money in the bank, but her comfortable lifestyle is upended when a relaxing afternoon carriage ride comes to a halt at the feet of a dead woman’s body. The crime is reported, but no one seems to care enough to seek justice. Eliza and her friend Jean, who shares her line of work, take it upon themselves to find the killer.
Because Smiley’s detective novel premise is set in the mid-nineteenth century, she indulges in language that is illustrative of the time in a way that makes the story more tangible. From Eliza’s description of her client sessions to how she depicts her surroundings on her explorative walks, it is evident that she prefers a tactile and sensory existence. She casually refers to herself as simple-minded but her attention to detail suggests otherwise. Her mother’s attempts to tamp down her will and teach her, as a young girl, the “proper” place of a woman in society all but took hold. Eliza was forced to keep her eyes cast downward as a child, but as an adult is instead the most observant. Her inquisitive mind allows her to pull techniques from the work of Edgar Allan Poe to perform her version of an investigation to determine who has taken the lives of at least three women around town.
There are dynamics that exist within Smiley’s story that give it relevance today, despite its historical setting. Sex work is a lucrative occupation that affords women a level of socio-economic freedom and is a major thread worth noting. Jean also works in a brothel. She deserves more time on the page, but the time she does spend with the reader challenges societal gender roles. Jean dresses and walks through the world as a man whenever she sees fit. Further, her brothel provides service to women, lifting some of the judgment regarding both sex work in general and as it pertains to women participating in a nontraditional, sex-positive lifestyle.
Where the visage of progressiveness is lifted is in Smiley’s illustration of the value of women’s lives. Eliza and Jean are forced to seek justice themselves when the law ignores the deaths of multiple women. Nor are any of the men in town compelled to provide any assistance. Given today’s coverage of sex workers’ rights, the connection is evident—the treatment of women, in some respects, has not changed much since the nineteenth century. Eliza has no problems with most of her clients, but during the process of her investigation, she realizes that once she steps outside of her boarding house or place of employment, existing as a woman in the world is the real dangerous business.
Another quieter thread woven through the story is the moral dilemma of slavery. Prior to looking into these women’s deaths, Eliza had not given much thought to slavery since it didn’t affect her in any obvious way. But rumblings of war have the town on edge. Once she recognizes her place in the world a bit more clearly, she starts to ask some of her clients their stance on slavery and the war. She even reveals her own distaste for it to gauge the response from one man. Toward the end of the novel, Jean is encouraged by their adventure of hunting a killer—she found it empowering. She declares she will do her part as a servant of the Underground Railroad, which is no surprise to Eliza, given Jean’s rebellious tendencies demonstrated throughout their friendship.
On its face, A Dangerous Business is a crime thriller with a character like Josephine Marcus from the film Tombstone that asks her to find the western equivalent of Jack the Ripper. The book also presents women who, through necessity, push past the labels and traditions of the time to become heroes. Overcoming a strict upbringing, becoming financially independent, and working together to save the lives of the women in their town from a serial killer illustrates the power of these women who were told, and believed, they were less than, only to shake off the stereotypes and build themselves anew.
By Jane Smiley
Knopf Publishing Group
Published December 6, 2022