Burlesque dancer searches for her missing infant and a friend’s killer in Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’

Emma Donoghue’s latest novel has many facets, all of them fascinating. Like her short story collection Astray and her novel Slammerkin, Frog Music is a detailed slice of historical drama, this time set in the festering boomtown of San Francisco in 1876. Like her hair-raising bestseller Room, it incorporates the elements of a thriller; in fact, there’s enough of a puzzle here for it to qualify as a full-blooded mystery (Donoghue herself refers to Frog Music as a crime novel in an author’s note).

Best of all, there’s Donoghue’s familiar and intricate examination of women in impossible circumstances, bound to repugnant men for survival but never broken by them.

Like the works in Astray, Frog Music is based on a true story, this time about the unsolved murder of a cross-dressing frog catcher named Jeanne Bonnet, here called Jenny. (If you can resist the phrase “cross-dressing frog catcher,” you really need to examine your lack of curiosity.) In the book as in life, Jenny is shot through the window of a boarding house in the novel’s opening pages, in the company of Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer and prostitute.

Inspired by an account of this crime she read years ago in a museum gift shop book, Donoghue takes this event and puts her formidable, eloquent mark on it. In her version, Blanche’s survival seems random chance: She’s only spared because she bent down to untangle her gaiters. She has known Jenny for only a few weeks when she dies — they met when Jenny ran her down on a bicycle — and their friendship has hit a difficult spot.

Still, Blanche grieves, and her sorrow gives way to outrage. She spends the next several days trying to track down Jenny’s killer, sure she was the intended victim. Her main suspects are her estranged, dandified lover Arthur and his sidekick Ernest, freeloaders and former acrobats who gamble away Blanche’s earnings. Furious at her refusal to work so she can care for her infant son, they spirit the child away, leaving a frantic Blanche to search for him, too.

Blanche acts as a guide through the seamy, steamy city by the bay, which is undergoing a brutal, uncharacteristic heat wave and a massive smallpox outbreak. Both plagues have set the citizens on edge, as have long-simmering tensions against Chinese workers filling the city’s tenements.

Cultural disgust is universal, though, in this overheated melting pot. Blanche, a French immigrant, is disgusted by a family of Irish saloonkeepers. “ You Frog whore, that’s what Ellen would have liked to call Blanche, no doubt, except that the woman probably couldn’t pronounce such a word because the Irish are the prudes of Europe. (Always have more children than they can feed, then go round crossing themselves as if they don’t know what f------ is.)”

Donoghue revisits an older and in some ways more horrifying version of the shed where a small boy grows up captive in Room, exposing the shocking practice of baby farming, in which unsavory individuals are paid to take in unwanted infants — and then treacherously neglect them. “How many will she find stacked in each crib, alive in name only, sucking on what — milk watered down to cloudy water? Glazed-eyed and crone-faced, tiny bones showing through translucent skin?”

But Blanche learns rescuing her child from this hell is no easier than leaving him to wither and die. Donoghue isn’t blind to the demands of motherhood, and some of the book’s best sequences involve the impatient, inexperienced Blanche, used to catering to the dark tastes of men, trying to decipher the whims of an infant.

Colorful French slang and period songs — both of which have their own glossaries in the book — flow through the novel lyrically, making the era as vital as the plot. Donoghue is as acrobatic with her storytelling and language as Arthur and Ernest were flying high above the heads of their audience, and she paints the stinking city vividly as “a roulette wheel that spins its human chips at random. Blanche has been driven around by cabbies who claim to be gentlemen temporarily down on their luck, and spent high-paid nights with michetons who boast that they began as coal miners.”

Gradually, a second question emerges: What sort of person will Blanche become? Will she stay a prostitute? Or will she break free from the men controlling her? “She is different these days, one way or another; she knows that,” Donoghue writes. “[H]as this older, harder Blanche been hidden inside her all along?”

Early on, Jenny had told her, “If you meet an obstacle you can jump free.” She’s talking about riding the bicycle on crowded city streets, but by the novel’s end, Blanche sees another, more important lesson. “[N]ot always,” Blanche thinks. “You have to allow for some damage.” Damaged or not, she has a choice, one that will keep you riveted as you make your way through this vibrant novel.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.