Undercover

By CLEA SIMON  |  June 9, 2009

To make Grey an FBI agent, instead, took work. "I do a lot of research," says Smith. "For North of Montana, I probably talked to a dozen agents, male and female, and Ana's voice is an aggregate of their points of view. The procedural stuff is totally accurate; the manuscript was read by several agents."

The choice of bureau proved providential. Whereas North of Montana steps back to explain why an FBI agent would be handling a simple homicide, in Judas Horse, bureau involvement is natural. For that book, the third and most recent title in the series (originally published in hardcover in 2008), Grey ends up investigating possible domestic terrorists, assuming the identity of a tough street kid, Darcy Guzman, and going undercover with extreme animal activists who are targeting bureaucrats who may or may not be profiting from the culling of wild horses in rural Oregon.

Once again, the question of voice, of identity, comes to the fore, as Grey develops her cover, a persona "born in a slash of light off a Rexall window in a Virginia mall." Like an author, Grey starts out referring to her undercover persona in the third person, questioning how she would act, what she would say to an intrusive question ("Go on the attack. Get right back in their face.") But before long, the unloved girl takes hold, the isolation of the job playing into the role. And when another undercover agent turns up in the movement, a traitor to the bureau, Grey begins to understand how that could happen. "And the Darcy part of me experiences a rush of feeling for the old bandit that Ana, still the FBI agent, could never admit: affection." Add in the complications of conflicted loyalty to her old partner and to another agent, a former lover, who has been killed on this assignment, and nothing remains clear. It's that kind of ambiguity, along with Smith's naturalistic storytelling, that makes this series work.

In Smith's own life, the question of voice — of ownership — is key. It is why, after more than a decade in television, she started writing novels.

"The main difference between the two is that you own the copyright to your books and no one can tell you what to do or how to do it," she says. "When you're working for a studio, you're a writer for hire. You're at the studio's beck and call and you have to make the changes they want. As a television writer you get very frustrated with things getting changed and so forth. Writing novels, you sink or swim on your own."

Smith hasn't given up the more lucrative world of TV. When we talk, in fact, she's researching an upcoming project. This dual career, she says, is why her books have been so few and far between, with the Ana Grey novels North of Montana and Judas Horse joined only by 2003's Good Morning, Killer and the 2000 standalone, Be the One.

"The trouble is that I do everything," she says. "That's why there are spaces between the books. I'm trying to close that gap."

In addition to being, well, overbooked, Smith cites the difference — or absence — of deadlines. "When you are doing a show like Cagney and Lacey, you're on a weekly deadline, an hourly deadline. With novels there should be no deadline!"

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