When I first started writing, I decided to learn how to make a plot by writing a mystery,” Jane Smiley is saying on a sunlit afternoon. We’re in the back garden of the Alta Bakery & Café in downtown Monterey, talking about A Dangerous Business, a historical novel set in this community in 1851 that details the adventures of two young prostitutes who follow a trail of girls gone missing—and dead.
“Nancy Drew started me off, but then there was Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes,” Smiley recalls, adding that she prefers puzzle solving to foul play. “The thing I loved about Christie’s books was that they weren’t terribly violent—you might get a glimpse of some bad, icky thing, but it wasn’t gruesome.”
Smiley has written a mystery before: Duplicate Keys, published nearly four decades ago, about a double murder on New York’s Upper West Side. But it’s a mostly forgotten early work in her canon. Now, she’s returning to the form. “When you’re a writer, the first person you want to entertain is yourself,” she says. “Each of my books has been entertaining to me.”
A Dangerous Business tells the story of Eliza Ripple (née Cargill), who takes a job in a brothel after her late, unlamented husband is killed in a bar fight. When the bodies of women start turning up outside of town, Eliza and her friend Jean MacPherson—who works at an establishment catering to women looking for same-sex companionship—take it upon themselves to find out who’s responsible.
It’s not without risk. As the women seek clues and likely suspects, the degree of difficulty dawns on Eliza. She clasps Jean’s hand, insisting, “This is a dangerous business.” With admirable pulp fiction brevity, Jean replies, “What isn’t?”
Smiley’s return to the mystery comes after a stunning series of literary successes, including The Greenlanders, her ambitious account of the 14th-century Norse invasion of the island; A Thousand Acres, a recasting of King Lear that won a Pulitzer Prize; and an intergenerational trilogy—Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age—that traces the life of an Iowa family.
Her oeuvre to date includes 16 novels, two short story collections, and six works of nonfiction, including books on Charles Dickens and horse racing, and a biography of the man who invented the computer. In what passes for free time, she’s also published eight young adult novels. As Pico Iyer once noted, “She turns literary and stylistic cartwheels.… Is there anything Jane Smiley cannot do?”
If so, she’s not telling. “When I was teaching at UC Riverside,” Smiley remembers, “I’d always tell my students that a murder mystery is a perfect example of a book that is focused on character and plot. There are mystery writers who do more complicated things, but I was more interested in the environment that Eliza and Jean were living in than I was in making their psychology really complicated.”
What this means is that whether she’s writing about Eliza and Jean or Dickens, she’s reluctant to put her hand on the scales.
“When I wrote Charles Dickens: A Life, I’d been reading a lot of biographies of authors, and the biographers seemed to be constantly judging them,” Smiley says. “My choice was to try and present his life as close as possible to the way he would see it. I think he was sort of semi-crazy. I think he had good reasons to be kind of semi-crazy.”
She elaborates: “There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel an alignment with a particular character. Empathy is when you see things from that character’s point of view. Larry Cook [the Lear-like father in A Thousand Acres] is someone I don’t have any sympathy for, but I needed to have empathy in order to portray him.”
In A Dangerous Business, Eliza survives her perilous pursuit of a killer, determined to chart a different course. “If Monterey had taught her anything, it was to make the best of things,” Smiley writes. “Every ship that sailed into the bay had to do what the winds demanded, whatever the captain’s plans might be.”
After lunch, Smiley and I chart our own course, to downtown Monterey touchstones such as Colton Hall, site of California’s first Constitutional Convention, and Custom House Plaza, where Commodore Sloat raised the American flag in 1846. She’s enchanted by the local history to the point of fact-checking some of the book, including the material on Jean’s same-sex brothel, with Monterey historian Dennis Copeland.
“I was afraid that he was going to say you can’t put this in there,” she acknowledges. “But he said it was possible.” Even so, she draws the line at identifying the location that inspired Eliza’s brothel. “I’m not going to tell you that,” she says with a laugh.
Why would she? For Smiley, that’s part of the mystery of writing. “When I sent my agent A Thousand Acres, she told me, ‘No one wants to read about a farm,’ ” she recalls, laughing. “I’ve never let her forget it.”•