Don’t mess with these women

Review: Vivien Horler

A Dangerous Business, by Jane Smiley (Abacus Books)

Being a woman is a dangerous business, says Mrs Parks, and she should know.

She runs a brothel the Monterey of 1851, a port town a couple of days south of San Francisco, peopled by American settlers, Spaniards, Portuguese, indigenous Californians, British sailors and “priests and Presbyterians”. There are seven or eight men to every woman.

Mrs Parks is a kindly madam, for which Eliza Ripple is grateful. At 18, Eliza was married off by her parents in Michigan to Peter Cargill, a man who seemed prosperous and respectable, but wasn’t.

Within months of the wedding he has taken Eliza to Monterey to seek gold, but the gold rush has moved on, and he has no luck. Eliza is not happy, as Peter seems to expect her to be his servant, plus he makes it clear he intends to put it to her, whether she likes it or not, once or twice every day.

But within two years of the wedding, Peter is shot dead in a bar fight, and Eliza is left to look after herself. Ironically, after her unfortunate hypersexual marriage, Eliza ends up earning her living – and it’s a good living – at Mrs Parks’s establishment. On the whole, she notes, her customers treat her better than Peter ever did.

She lives in a rooming house where the landlady doesn’t ask questions, even when Eliza spends the whole night out. No one seems to look askance or cast aspersions.

But then “girls” start to disappear. Monterey has a sheriff, but no constabulary, and with its shifting population, people come and go all the time. Maybe down south to Mexico, maybe up north to San Francisco, and no one is particularly concerned when people go missing.

Eliza makes a friend, Jean, who is in the same business but attends to the needs of women, not men. The day comes when one of Jean’s clients takes Jean and Eliza for a buggy ride in the country, and they come across the body of a young woman, half in and half out of a small creek.

Inspired by their reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Eliza and Jean make it their business to find out who is targeting Monterey’s young women. In the process we discover a lot about 1851 Monterey, its people and surroundings. Now I’m sorry I never went there when I was in San Francisco, today only a two-hour drive away.

We also discover quite a bit about the everyday business of prostitution, and how to cheer a man up. Mrs Parks runs an orderly set-up, with rough, dirty or smelly men not admitted. There is a guard, and the women are taught how to avoid pregnancy.

It almost sounds like a good job – maybe too good to be true?

Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for her A Thousand Acres, but A Dangerous Business attracted a poor review from the Guardian’s Erica Wagner, who wrote: “Worst of all, at the end of the novel Eliza is the same frank innocent she was at the start; she hasn’t learned anything and – more’s the pity – neither have we.”

There may be some truth in that, as Eliza does seem to have mostly sailed above the events she describes, some of them pretty horrific, but I disagree that we haven’t learnt anything.

I read A Dangerous Business with curiosity and pleasure.

  • A Dangerous Business was one of Exclusive Books’s top 25 books for February.




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