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Snap, Crackle and Pop

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue, Picador, 416 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1447249740 On Thursday September 14th, 1876 a murder is committed in a one-horse town on the outskirts of San Francisco. Around a month before, the two women intimately connected to this crime – cross-dressing frog-catcher Jenny Bonnet and French burlesque sensation Blanche Beunon – had met by accident, by bicycle accident actually, forming a friendship that would prove fatally consequential for one and morally consequential for the other. Frog Music, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, is both a whodunnit inspired by actual historical events and the tale of a reckoning with responsibility. San Francisco is a city that can’t breathe, its air a “stinking miasma” thickened by a smallpox epidemic and the worst heat wave in living memory: “The health inspectors have nailed disinfectant sheets over many more doors; yellow flags hang like bunting.” The locals blame the Chinese for the disease, while the authorities clamp down on vagrants. “Cursing’s banned now, did you hear?” reports one character. “So’s having the DTs, looking deformed, flying kites …” This “cock-eyed metropolis” fancies itself as the Paris of the West but functions more like an overgrown frontier town. Barely policed, its dizzy inclines swarm with greasy swindlers, strutting new-money bourgeoisie, rag-tag immigrants and disillusioned miners panhandling for coins, the human detritus of the Gold Rush. Saucy entertainment is on offer to match all classes of wallets; at the entry level (so to speak) you have the “crib girls” who see “up to 100 customers a night”; for a few nickels more you could cadge a streetwalker; but if money is no object you head for the House of Mirrors, a bordello within an Italianate mansion run with canny proficiency by Madame Johanna, a blow-in from Prussia with a conveniently missing husband. Here you can bid for a virgin (ten being the legal age of consent, not that anyone is checking), or splash out on a burlesque starring Blanche la Danseuse, “an expert tease, an allumeuse who lights the flame and snuffs it, lights and snuffs it”. Blanche earns fifty dollars for public performances and more in private rendezvous with her michetons (johns). Given that a dollar then was roughly the equivalent of twenty-two dollars today, Blanche Beunon is one very high-class whore. Jenny Bonnet is “the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it”. Gangly, pugnacious and pistol-packed, Jenny tolerates jail…

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