Jane Smiley is best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning book A Thousand Acres. Since then she has been busy writing books in all genres, including her multi-generational Last Hundred Years trilogy, as well as turning her eye/pen to many different societal issues. In her latest book A Dangerous Business, she now ventures into the mystery/detective genre but unfortunately this book just does not hit the mark for me. I have read many of her works and that is why I was both anxious to read and disappointed in the effort.
Here Smiley takes us back to Monterrey, California in the early 1850’s as we follow the fortunes of newly arrived Eliza Ripple, whose brute of a husband was killed in a bar fight and which forces her to turn to prostitution in order to survive. We meet a friendly brothel owner, as well as Jean who works at a different brothel, one which takes only female customers. Early on these two stumble upon a mystery of disappearing women in Monterrey, and are fueled by a love of Edgar Allen Poe’s detective works to try and solve the mystery themselves without the aid of the local constabulary who turn a blind eye to these disappearances.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Yep, but the books then rambles, and Smiley cannot decide if this is a mystery book, a detective book, a ghost story book, a gal-pal book, a book on slavery, or a recitation of Eliza’s clients and their sexual preferences. Maybe it is a combination of all of these, but it just does not work for me.
As with all of her books, Smiley’s writing is wonderful, but it is brought short by the meandering story line that just stalls in many instances. Fans of Smiley may react like me, and if you are new to her books, this is probably not the best introduction to her body of works. Nevertheless, Smiley plugs through to an ending that ties up loose ends, delivers the hope of new beginnings, and left me with the hope that this is her only venture into this genre.