Book review: Mystery novels by Jane Smiley and Shelby Van Pelt push boundaries A Dangerous Business, by Jane Smiley, is mash-up of a Western, a serial killer mystery and a feminist erotic romp. Remarkably Bright Creatures, by Shelby Van Pelt, is a noir story about an octopus.

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Looking for a twist on the whodunit? Two mysteries veer into uncharted territory

Looking for a twist on the whodunit? Two mysteries veer into uncharted territory

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For holiday gift-giving or reading, I've got two non-traditional mysteries to recommend: One is genre-bending; the other features a detective who specializes in underwater investigations.

A Dangerous Business, by Jane Smiley Penguin Random House hide caption

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Penguin Random House

A Dangerous Business, by Jane Smiley

Penguin Random House

Jane Smiley has been a shape-shifter all throughout her long career: Her fiction has spanned domestic dramas like her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres; to her academic satire, Moo; to speculative Norse history in The Greenlanders. Her latest novel is a mash-up of a Western, a serial killer mystery and a feminist erotic romp.

A Dangerous Business is set in Monterey, Calif., during the Gold Rush era. Heroine Eliza Ripple is a young widow whose brutish husband was killed in a bar fight. Eliza shed no tears; in fact, she's happy earning her living in a local bordello. Not since Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke hosted Marshal Dillon, Chester and Doc every night at the Longbranch Saloon has life in a bawdy house seemed so amiable.

But the atmosphere quickly shifts from risqué to downright risky after two fellow working girls go missing. Eliza's boss, a madam who exudes the world-weary wisdom of someone who's been around the block more than once, tells her: "Between you and me, being a woman is a dangerous business, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Around this same time, Eliza is befriended by another young woman named Jean who offers her services at "The Pearly Gates," a bordello that "attend[s] to the needs of ladies, not men." Jean sometimes wears men's clothes and avails herself of male privileges, like taking Eliza on long walks down to the docks and into the surrounding woodlands. She also introduces Eliza to Edgar Allan Poe's detective stories, starting with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Soon enough, Eliza and Jean will be emulating Poe's detective, Monsieur Dupin, as they take it upon themselves to investigate the mystery of the missing girls — a mystery the male authorities in Monterey are content to ignore.

The solution to the serial killings turns out to be "utterly unexpected"; but it's really the story of Eliza that commands attention: a woman stranded at the edge of the Pacific who's determined to hold onto her newfound autonomy.

Ecco
Remarkably Bright Creatures, by Shelby Van Pelt
Ecco

I missed Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures when it came out this past May, but its weird premise kept calling to me. An elderly woman named Tova works nights at an aquarium on the Puget Sound; she doesn't need the job, but scrubbing floors and fish tanks keeps her mind off her teenage son's disappearance 30 years ago.

Watching Tova from his tank is the aquarium's main attraction — a giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus. One night, Tova frees Marcellus from a near fatal entanglement with a power cord; in return, Marcellus silently resolves to use his knowledge of the sea and his superior memory for faces and objects to help Tova discover the truth about her son's fate.

I had my doubts about this detecting duo of janitor and tentacled gumshoe: I thought it might be too cute. But, as Marcellus might joke, I was a sucker for thinking so. His voice, which alternates with chapters featuring Tova and other characters, is scornful and sad. Here's a snippet of Marcellus' introduction:

Each evening, I await the click of the overhead lights, leaving only the glow from the main tank. Not perfect, but close enough.

Almost-darkness, like the middle-bottom of the sea. I lived there before I was captured and imprisoned. ...

I must advise you that our time together may be brief. The plaque [on my tank] states ... the average life span of a giant Pacific octopus. Four years. ...

I was brought here as a juvenile. I shall die here, in this tank. At the very most, one hundred and sixty days remain until my sentence is complete.

Like a noir detective, Marcellus looks the ultimate deadline of death in the eye and doesn't blink. Both of these strange and freshly-imagined stories go deeper into uncharted territory for the mystery novel.

NPR's Book We Love returns with 400+ new books handpicked by NPR staff and critics — including recommendations from Maureen Corrigan. Click to find your next great read. NPR hide caption

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