A Dangerous Business

She borrowed from King Lear for her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, and in the chilling A Dangerous Business, Jane Smiley (Perestroika in Paris; Golden Age; Early Warning) invokes Edgar Allan Poe, specifically "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." It's the mid-1850s, and young Kalamazoo native Eliza Ripple is living alone in a Monterey, Calif., boarding house after her husband, Peter, was shot in a bar fight. Eliza starts working at a brothel run by Mrs. Parks, who warns that their line of work is "a dangerous business." Then again, she says, "being a woman is a dangerous business, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise." The gig turns out to be even more menacing than anticipated when some of the women disappear. With the help of her friend Jean MacPherson, who often dresses as a man and tends to women clients at a different brothel, and inspired by M. Dupin, the non-detective who solves the mystery in Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Eliza tries to solve the disappearances.

Given the story's grisliness, Smiley's tone throughout is surprisingly breezy, and fans will welcome this entry into her body of work. She does a skillful job of keeping readers guessing with regard to the killer's identity and addressing themes as relevant today as they were then (the scourge of racism, the role of women in society). Upon reading Poe for the first time, Eliza discovers that she likes "the idea that a train of logic could lead to something utterly unexpected." Smiley takes readers on an equally unpredictable ride. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

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