'Being a woman is dangerous business' in Jane Smiley's witty Wild West murder mystery

Jane Smiley paints such vivid imagery with her language that it’s easy for her novels to conjure memories of various movies and television. Her latest, “A Dangerous Business” (Knopf, 224 pp., ★★★½ out of four), tells the story of two brothel denizens of the early industrial West, a milieu that brings to mind the likes of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Deadwood.” They become amateur sleuths when a series of women in and around their adopted hometown, the coastal California town of Monterey, turn up dead. Their ad hoc investigation makes it hard not to think of David Lynch's “Mulholland Drive.”

But the book remains Smiley through and through, with clarity, deceptive wit and moral compass working at the service of a larger idea, namely, as Eliza’s employer puts it, that “being a woman is dangerous business, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Eliza, who patiently puts up with sailors, drunks and the occasional gentleman; and Jean, who services the town’s women, come to covet that danger, curiously mapping and probing the murders because, well, they can, and nobody else in 1851 Monterey is going to bother.

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"A Dangerous Business," by Jane Smiley.
"A Dangerous Business," by Jane Smiley.

Our two snoops are from the Midwest: Eliza from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Jean from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Eliza came West with her husband, who was promptly shot dead in a bar fight, which was fine with Eliza, who didn’t like the guy anyway (she still carries a torch for the young Irishman scared away by her annoyingly pious mom). Now she works for Mrs. Parks, who runs a pretty safe place and pays a decent wage. When she meets Jean, an independent-minded woman who claims to see ghosts (and expresses her frustration that they never stick around to chat), she finds a kindred spirit, and someone who quietly pushes her, mostly by example, to become bolder and more assertive.

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Eliza reads Edgar Allan Poe in the magazines of the day; the master of the macabre creeps her out but also inspires her a little. Here she is on his 1841 classic short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: “She was impressed mostly by the idea that a train of logic could lead to something utterly unexpected.” This observation will, of course, become a guiding principle of her own investigation.

Smiley, who won a Pulitzer for her 1992 King-Lear-on-the-farm novel “A Thousand Acres,” delights in taking a latently adventurous woman from a sleepy Midwestern town and placing her in the Wild West to find herself amid nasty but thrilling doings. “A Dangerous Business” is as much a tale of self-actualization as it is a murder mystery. Being a woman may be a dangerous business, but for Eliza and Jean, that just makes it more fun to push against societal boundaries. What better place than the West, where opportunity beckons along with the bloodshed?

Among Smiley’s many gifts is an eye for the cycles of the natural world, and how the cycles affect her characters. “As she had noticed the previous winter,” she writes of Eliza, “days went around and around between brilliant sunshine, heavy rain, dense fog, windy cold, and gloomy cloud cover. How to decide at the beginning of the day what to take along?”

Welcome to California, Eliza. Stick around for a while. Maybe solve a few murders while you’re at it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jane Smiley's 'A Dangerous Business' a witty Wild West murder mystery