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BOOK REVIEW

In Jane Smiley’s latest novel, two young women navigate sex work and detective work on the frontier

“A Dangerous Business” offers social commentary wrapped in a Gold Rush mystery

Antonello Silverini for The Boston Globe

After the first dozen pages, the title of Jane Smiley’s incongruously cozy new murder mystery, “A Dangerous Business,” appears to refer to the potential perils of prostitution during the last years of the California Gold Rush. The novel’s protagonist, Eliza Ripple, has supported herself by working in a Monterey brothel since her husband was killed in a bar fight seven months earlier, and another young prostitute who, according to many around town, “lur[ed] our fellows into sin,” is the first of several “girls” to disappear.

“A Dangerous Business” is indeed about the very real risks of sex work in the Wild West, but it also carries an even more discomforting message, though Smiley delivers both with her characteristic decorum, employing an almost genteel tone that is less “CSI: Deadwood” than “Murder, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Wrote.” As the body count rises, Eliza starts to see suspect behavior — as well as suspects — in many of her clients, whose actions highlight the myriad ways in which men can be hostile or threatening. Mrs. Parks, who owns the brothel where Eliza works, is sympathetic to her concerns, but offers a sapient perspective: “Men are like that. … You’ve had to put up with similar things yourself. 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.”

That latter, sweeping conclusion, is the novel’s real message, and it is one that is as resonant in the wildness of Smiley’s 1850s Wild West as it is in today’s United States, where women’s health and character can come under attack from not only maladjusted misogynists, but also politicians, police officers, judges, justices, and the press.

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As the only child of strictly religious parents in Kalamazoo, Mich., Eliza’s life was hazardous from the start. Then, when she was just 18, her father “handed her over” to Peter Cargill, 20 years her senior. In the nearly three years they were married, Peter moved them to California in search of gold, and treated Eliza more as a possession or servant than a partner. To say that she did not mourn his death would overstate her grief. By the time she turns 21, shortly after the novel opens, she is physically settled, financially secure, and just plain happy. The youngest and smallest of Mrs. Parks’s girls, Eliza never wants for work, seeing a steady stream of men and boys as young as 14, this being the 1850s after all, some of whom want an understanding ear or a warm body more than sex.

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Eliza’s truest friend is Jean MacPherson, who works at a brothel that serves only “the needs of ladies.” Jean also hails from the Midwest, but had a more progressive upbringing than Eliza. She came out when she was 16, and because her aunt lived with a woman, her parents soon understood. Jane often dresses and presents as a man, sometimes while walking arm-in-arm with Eliza. Her character is one of many ways that Smiley imbues Monterey with an open-mindedness that doesn’t always arise in frontier fiction.

Jean lends Eliza copies of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories, and as they discover the first two dead bodies and start playing at being detectives themselves, the women take their cues from what they have read, never disturbing the crime scene and viewing everything with their hands safely clasped behind their backs. Eliza does take a lock of hair from the first corpse as a potential clue, but admits that she “knew nothing about hair except how to comb it, how to roll it into a bun, how to push it out of her face.”

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Nobody else in town seems interested in solving the murders, so Jean and Eliza persist in their investigation, increasing the dangers they already face. Jean points out that Monterey’s law enforcement have “never look[ed] our way,” leading Eliza to conclude later on that “As long as no one did a thing about the killings of the girls, then everyone who could have done it (therefore, everyone around Monterey at the times of the killings) might have done it.”

For a story centered around sex work, the novel is remarkably wholesome. Men do “their business,” and Eliza “rather enjoy[s] herself” on occasion. A couple of guys hold her feet. One man cradles her discarded gown. But the closest a scene ever comes to salacious is when a youthful fellow with an “excellent gelled mustache that swept up into points that seemed to mimic his smile” wants “entry from the back.”

Jean’s continual claims about seeing ghosts grow tedious, and contemporary social issues sometimes feel shoehorned into the narrative, but Smiley has written two dozen novels for adults and young adults, and clearly knows her way around a story. “A Dangerous Business” brims with delightful little touches, whether it’s a lived-in character trait like Eliza’s assertion that her Midwestern roots inured her to fears of West Coast storms, or just what’s in a name, like the pair of horses called Lester and Morely, who go by Less and More.

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Over-the-top true crime abounds these days, everywhere from podcasts like “Crime Junkie” or “Casefile” to Netflix’s “Night Stalker” or “The Staircase.” Smiley’s ability to deliver salient social commentary wrapped in such an inviting murder mystery shows that just because the game’s afoot, doesn’t mean you need to bludgeon your readers with criminal minds, blood, and guts.

“A Dangerous Business”

By Jane Smiley

Knopf, 224 pages, $28.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.