Book Review: A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley

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 …”

My Book Review

I chose to read this book after receiving a free e-copy from NetGalley. All opinions in this review are my own and completely unbiased.

This is the first book I’ve read by Jane Smiley, but it won’t be the last. A Dangerous Business is about Eliza who is working in a brothel since her husband was killed in a bar fight. She actually likes working there better than when she was with her husband because he treated her horribly. The men she services are all different, but most are harmless. If there’s a man she’s concerned about, she can leave her door cracked so that Carlos (their protector) can keep an eye out.

When someone starts murdering girls who work in Eliza’s profession, she and her friend, Jean, decide to investigate because the law doesn’t seem to care about the girls. Poor Eliza becomes suspicious of most men, but that’s understandable. The identity of the murderer has a twist, and I thought it had a good ending.

Like good historical fiction, A Dangerous Business has a good story, but it also has true historical facts. I’ve always been interested in American history, and that along with a murder mystery makes a great read.

About the Author

Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained a A.B. at Vassar College, then earned a M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar. From 1981 to 1996, she taught at Iowa State University. Smiley published her first novel, Barn Blind, in 1980, and won a 1985 O. Henry Award for her short story “Lily”, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Her best-selling A Thousand Acres, a story based on William Shakespeare’s King Lear, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. It was adapted into a film of the same title in 1997. In 1995 she wrote her sole television script produced, for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. Her novella The Age of Grief was made into the 2002 film The Secret Lives of Dentists.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), is a non-fiction meditation on the history and the nature of the novel, somewhat in the tradition of E. M. Forster’s seminal Aspects of the Novel, that roams from eleventh century Japan’s Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji to twenty-first century Americans chick lit.

In 2001, Smiley was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

http://www.therealjanesmiley.com/

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