TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has two recommendations for mystery lovers looking for a twist on the traditional whodunit.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: For holiday gift giving or reading, I've got two nontraditional mysteries to recommend. One is genre-bending. The other features a detective who specializes in underwater investigations. Jane Smiley has been a shapeshifter 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 Long Branch Saloon has life in a bawdy house seemed so amiable. But the atmosphere quickly shifts from risque 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 attends 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 is determined to hold on to her newfound autonomy.
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. (Reading) Each evening I await the click of the overhead lights, leaving only the glow from the main tank. 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 lifespan 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, 160 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.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Dangerous Business" by Jane Smiley and "Remarkably Bright Creatures" by Shelby Van Pelt.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, while democracy is being threatened in many parts of the world, we'll talk about the attack on American democracy from inside the country during World War I and the period just after. American white nationalist groups were on the rise. The labor movement was under attack. And the U.S. government was spying on legal organizations and censoring the press. Our guests will be Adam Hochschild, author of "American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy's Forgotten Crisis." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "PUSSY CAT DUES")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "PUSSY CAT DUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.