cover image A Dangerous Business

A Dangerous Business

Jane Smiley. Knopf, $28 (224p) ISBN 978-0-525-52033-7

Pulitzer Prize winner Smiley (Perestroika in Paris) spins a remarkable story of the California gold rush and a pair of sex worker sleuths who track down the culprit behind a series of disappearances. After 21-year-old Eliza Cargill Ripple’s husband is killed in a bar brawl, she goes to work in the efficiently run and well-guarded brothel of beneficent madam Mrs. Parks. It’s Mrs. Parks who says the “risky business” of prostitution is a “dangerous” one, but so is, for these characters, simply being a woman. Eliza’s customers are a mix of the young and old, wandering sailors, adulterous husbands, judges, and lawyers. One day, Eliza establishes what she terms her life’s “ first true friendship” with Jean MacPherson, a colleague who services “reticent” women and often dresses as a man. Most of the characters are transplants from back east who’ve landed in town with new names and new identities, and when several of them—all women—disappear, Eliza and Jean become a formidable duo of amateur sleuths whose deductive skills were gained by reading Edgar Allan Poe (especially “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). Harnessing’s Poe’s character Dupin’s “train of logic,” the women suss out the most likely culprit and hatch a cleverly devised trap. The vivid historical details and vibrant characters bring Smiley’s setting to glorious life. This seductive entertainment is not to be missed. (Dec.)