Saturday, March 4, 2023

March Read: A Dangerous Business by Jane Smiley


This was a quick read (just over 200 pages) and I loved it. It's a bit of a murder mystery but it's also historical fiction that has a lot to say about women in the Wild West. 

The Wild West in this case is Monterey, California in 1851. Eliza Ripple is a very young woman who has recently been widowed after her ass of a husband, Peter, is shot at a bar. Best thing ever for Eliza. Peter was her much older husband, and treated Eliza like his personal servant. Both had recently arrived in Monterey from Michigan, where Eliza's strict religious parents had fallen for Peter's seemingly mild mannered and sincere actions. Once married, the truth comes out and Eliza is trapped. 

Peter is killed, and wow, Eliza is free! All alone in a bustling gold rush town, she needs a way to make a living. The kindly Mrs. Parker offers her a solution, and Eliza becomes a prostitute. Seems like a good way to make a living and save up some cash. Eliza has a few clients every day, then retires to her room at a boarding house. Eliza learns a whole lot about men, and decides they aren't all like Peter-in fact, there are some pretty good men around. She's quite content to be independent and loves living in Monterey.

Eliza and her friend Jean discover a dead body while out on a carriage ride. The sheriff and the coroner don't seem too disturbed by it, but Eliza and Jean are-mostly because it's a young woman, and she was murdered and tossed aside like garbage. With a recent interest in reading Edgar Allen Poe's stories, the two women decide to investigate the murder 'Poe style'. And sure enough, this young woman is only the first of the women who are disappearing around Monterey. 

Eliza and Jean are absolutely delightful characters. I was immediately taken by the matter-of-factness of Eliza. This is no helpless female. She looks around, assesses, and makes her choices. Jean is equally delightful. She's a prostitute who caters to female clients. As Jean says, most of these clients just want someone to talk to, or to give them a hug. Women who are married and feel alone. 

Both women have freedom most other women do not. They have no husbands or children, make their own income, and are able to walk about (properly and demurely dressed, of course) with no worries. Eliza spends her time with clients quickly doing the deed, but then talking to them about where they live, what they do, and questions them about the latest political news. Slavery and the railroad are big topics. The Civil War is only a few years away. Eliza never once feels like a victim and sees what she does as a way to make a living and be independent. 

Nature plays a big part in this novel. The nature of Monterey, the ocean, the twisty trees and the fog; the different journeys of the men Eliza crosses paths with; the very nature of a swiftly changing country and political climate. 

It seems that every client or man Eliza meets may very well be the murderer; it's very near the end that the mystery is solved. I thought it was clever. I especially love the final few paragraphs; satisfied with Eliza and Jean's futures that will take them wherever the wind blows. And that's just how they like it. 

Rating: 5/6 for a short mystery that isn't your typical murder mystery. The setting and especially  the characters created a fast read that I enjoyed. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

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