Jane Smiley on her new novel, 'A Dangerous Business'

A person smiles next to another photo of a book cover
Jane Smiley's latest novel, "A Dangerous Business," follows two young prostitutes in Gold Rush California as they try to solve the mystery of their fellow brothel workers disappearing.
Derek Shapton and Knopf

“Between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business.”

So says Madam Parks to young Eliza Ripple, who is now working as a prostitute in Gold Rush-era California after her brutish husband was killed in a bar fight. Eliza knows this truth all too well. But instead of letting that truth paralyze her, she leans into the danger that freedom brings.

When some of her fellow working girls go missing, Eliza and friend Jean take it upon themselves to investigate the murders — a mystery the male authorities in Monterey are content to ignore.

Jane Smiley’s newest novel, “A Dangerous Business,” is murder mystery lite, topped with a hefty dollop of feminist energy. Both Smiley and her heroines are inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but unlike Poe, Smiley gives her characters a delightful sense of possibility.

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This week, on Big Books and Bold Ideas, MPR News host Kerri Miller talked with Smiley about the California landscape that so often gives shape to her books , how her discovery of the an obscure religions group influenced this story, and how movement unknots problems, both in writing and in life.


  • Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including “A Thousand Acres,” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her new book is “A Dangerous Business.”

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above. 

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