A Dangerous Business: A novel (Paperback)
December 2022 Indie Next List
“An incredibly thought-provoking new novel from Jane Smiley. Her characters are so well drawn out that I felt like I was living the narrative alongside them. The writing is evocative and makes the pages fly. I can't wait to sell this!”
— Brooke Beehler, Books Revisited, St. Cloud, MN
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling author of A Thousand Acres: An amazing “mash-up of a Western, a serial-killer mystery and a feminist-inflected tale of life in a bordello” (The Washington Post).
In 1850s Gold Rush California two young prostitutes, best friends Eliza and Jean, attempt 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.
“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..."
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 ..."
About the Author
JANE SMILEY is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.
Winner of the Society of American Historians Prize for Historical Fiction
A Must-Read Book in USA Today, Chicago Review of Books, Bookstr, Los Angeles Magazine, PopSugar, Crime Reads, Alta Online, AV Club • A Best Gift Book in Good Housekeeping and Vanity Fair
“Compulsively readable . . . Jane Smiley has added another star to her crown as one of the great American writers for today or any day. She has gifted us with fully realized, unforgettable characters we want to keep knowing, a taut plot, and a historical setting that comes alive to all our senses. Dare we hope for a sequel? Or even a series?”
—prize citation from Society of American Historians
“Now here’s something you don’t come across every day: a mash-up of a Western, a serial-killer mystery and a feminist-inflected tale of life in a bordello. But Jane Smiley’s A Dangerous Business is all that—and, amazingly, it works . . . Smiley smoothly melds three distinct narratives into one without breaking a sweat.”
—Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post
“It’s refreshing to read this taut tale . . . Enough interesting characters enter and exit Eliza’s brothel bedroom to justify a series of novels. If anything like A Dangerous Business, they’d be fine stories indeed.”
“Jane Smiley paints such vivid imagery with her language that it’s easy for her novels to conjure memories of various movies and television . . . A Dangerous Business brings to mind the likes of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Deadwood” . . . 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 . . . 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.”
“An entertaining, light murder mystery . . . A theme running through most of Smiley’s work—including A Dangerous Business—is that lives are a mixture of good luck and bad, best navigated by improvising and remaining light on one’s feet . . . Eliza’s determination to see the larger picture opens up the world to her. She is a young woman trying to define herself in a young country doing the same.”
—Heller McAlpin, NPR.org
“Darkly delightful . . . A remarkable book, one that is hard to categorize. Is it a whodunnit? Yes, certainly. But it is also a nifty piece of historical fiction . . . Smiley excels here at bringing all the female characters, even those who barely make an appearance, to vibrant life.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Perhaps her most provocative and engaging novel yet . . . A Dangerous Business is a slim but thrilling tale, and Smiley once again strikes a perfect balance by combining a sex-positive story and a classic mystery in a progressive way.”
“An affecting account of a young woman coming into her own . . . Smiley is a Balzac of the wide open spaces . . . This is no small thing, we have Eliza and Jean. Their pluck, their grit, most of all their ineffable belief in the power of books, make A Dangerous Business matter.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Deftly constructed . . . Smiley has created several engaging characters. She vividly recalls the political uproar of the 1850s . . . Her wry sense of humor is a bright thread . . . A Dangerous Business achieves the goal of all worthy historical novels: opening a window to the past, forcing comparisons to the present, raising unsettling questions about how much has really changed.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Edgar Allan Poe meets California gold country.”
“Smiley clearly knows her way around a story. A Dangerous Business brims with delightful little touches . . . 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 . . . ‘Being a woman is a dangerous business’ [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.”
“Fascinating . . . Smiley has crafted a dangerous world for our heroines—from the lawlessness of the Wild West to the rumblings of an approaching Civil War—but this novel balances that danger with a striking beauty.”
—Chicago Review of Books
“A gripping mystery set in gold rush California . . . Engrossing.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Readers won’t be able to put this one down.”
“Pulitzer-winning Smiley’s evocative sense of place and nuanced exploration of women’s roles in nineteenth-century American life nicely complement the portrait of Eliza and her determined effort to forge her own path . . . Highly recommended.”
“A remarkable story of the California gold rush and a pair of sex worker sleuths . . . The vivid historical details and vibrant characters bring Smiley’s setting to glorious life. This seductive entertainment is not to be missed.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed)
“Jane Smiley has a book coming out later this year that is superb, now you know.”
—Rumaan Alam, via Twitter
“The forthcoming Jane Smiley novel, A Dangerous Business, is so outstanding. Her sentences are sublime.”
—Roxane Gay, via Twitter