When I started writing, I decided to learn how to create a plot by writing a crime novel,” says Jane Smiley on a sunny afternoon. We’re in the backyard behind the Alta Bakery & Cafe in downtown Monterey talking about it A dangerous businessa historical novel set in this parish in 1851, describing the adventures of two young prostitutes who follow a trail of missing – and dead – girls.
“Nancy Drew got me started, but then there was Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes,” Smiley recalls, adding that she prefers solving puzzles to foul play. “What I loved about the Christie’s books was that they weren’t particularly violent — you could maybe glimpse something evil, disgusting, but it wasn’t cruel.”
Smiley wrote a mystery before: Duplicate keys, published almost four decades ago, about a double homicide in New York’s Upper West Side. But it is a mostly forgotten early work in their canon. Now she returns to form. “As a writer, the first thing you want to do is entertain yourself,” she says. “Each of my books has entertained me.”
A dangerous business tells the story of Eliza Ripple (née Cargill), who takes a job in a brothel after her late, untreaved husband is killed in a bar fight. When the bodies of women turn up outside of town, Eliza and her friend Jean MacPherson – who works at an establishment for women seeking same-sex society – set out to find those responsible.
It’s not without risk. As the women search for clues and possible suspects, the level of difficulty dawns on Eliza. She squeezes Jean’s hand and insists, “This is dangerous business.” With admirable pulp fiction brevity, Jean replies, “What isn’t?”
Smiley’s return to mystery comes after a stunning string of literary successes including The Greenlandersher ambitious account of the 14th-century Norse invasion of the island; thousand acresa rewrite of King Lear that won a Pulitzer Prize; and a generational trilogy—some luck, Early warningand Golden Age– that traces the life of a family in Iowa.
Her oeuvre to date includes 16 novels, two collections of short stories and six non-fiction books, including books on Charles Dickens and horse racing, as well as a biography of the man who invented the computer. In her spare time she has also published eight young adult novels. As Pico Iyer once remarked, “She does cartwheels, literary and stylistic… Is there anything Jane Smiley can’t do?”
If so, don’t say so. “When I taught at UC Riverside,” Smiley recalls, “I always told my students that a crime thriller was a perfect example of a book that 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 lived in than in making their psychology really complicated.”
That means whether she’s writing about Eliza and Jean or Dickens, she’s hesitant to put her hand on the scales.
“When I was writing Charles Dickens: One Life“I’ve read a lot of author biographies, and the biographers always seemed to be judging them,” says Smiley. “My decision was to try and portray his life as closely as possible to what he imagined. I think he was kind of half crazy. I think he had good reason to be half crazy.”
She elaborates: “There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel connected to a specific 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 have no sympathy for, but needed empathy to portray.”
in the A dangerous business, Eliza survives her dangerous pursuit of a murderer, determined to chart a different course. “If Monterey taught her anything, it was to make the best of things,” Smiley writes. “Any ship that entered the bay had to do as the wind dictated, whatever the captain’s plans.”
After lunch, Smiley and I chart our own course to downtown Monterey touchstones like Colton Hall, site of California’s first constitutional convention, and Custom House Plaza, where Commodore Sloat raised the American flag in 1846. She is charmed by the local history with Monterey historian Dennis Copeland fact-checking a portion of the book, including material on Jean’s same-sex brothel.
“I was afraid he would say you can’t put this in here,” she admits. “But he said it was possible.” Still, she draws a line in identifying the location that inspired Eliza’s brothel. “I won’t tell,” she says, laughing.
Why should she? For Smiley, this is part of the mystery of writing. “When I sent my agent thousand acres, she told me, ‘No one wants to read about a farm,'” she recalls, laughing. “I never let her forget that.”•