Who is Ana Grey? For readers who have just picked up the recent Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperback reissues of North of Montana or Judas Horse, the answer may seem simple. Grey is the fearless heroine of April Smith's dark and thoughtful thriller series. But reading these fast-paced books shows the question to be more complicated. Ana Grey is, after all, not only a brave FBI agent, but also the cowering daughter of a racist bully. A Latina disconnected from her father's Salvadorean heritage. A young, single, and attractive woman in a ferociously macho field, drawn to her married partner and determined not to fall into any gender traps. In a genre known for inhuman superheroes (Jack Reacher, anyone?) and the obviously, permanently wounded, Grey neither smokes nor drinks to excess, and only rarely uses her extensive weapons training. But she's vulnerable, a darker-than-average heroine, and she adds depth of character to these intense, well-plotted books.
HER OWN WOMAN "As a television writer you get very frustrated with things getting changed. Writing novels, you sink or swim on your own."
Grey's strong personality initially came as a surprise to Santa Monica–based author Smith. In the series starter, North of Montana, originally published in 1994, Grey wasn't even supposed to be a major character.
"I started with the seed of a true story that happened in my neighborhood," the titular north of Montana Avenue, says Smith over the phone from New York. The real case, she says, provided the outline for the book, Smith's first: a Latina housekeeper had been working for a doctor when she learned that the doctor's wife was having an affair. That knowledge got her fired and blackballed from other jobs — and eventually got her killed.
Smith's protagonist was originally going to be the doctor's wife, who, in her hands, becomes a troubled former Bostonian who is out of her depth in one of LA's more exclusive neighborhoods. Grey was simply a plot device, growing of a necessity to solve the crime, thriller style. "I needed a law-enforcement person to come in and save the day," says Smith. "And Ana Grey kind of backed into the story. She's half Hispanic because this housekeeper was Hispanic and because the FBI in the early '90s was going through convulsions because the Hispanic agents were in revolt against the Mormons," who dominated the bureau at that point, she explains. "So the whole idea of a Hispanic FBI agent, a female, kind of came together in reaction to this story. I originally thought she'd be a tertiary character, but she took over. I rewrote the book in her voice."
The reason Grey had to be an FBI agent deals a little more with that other side of Smith's life. A Boston University grad and former Phoenix contributor, Smith left Boston in 1977 for California, where she built a career in television. As a producer on the Emmy-nominated Cagney and Lacey, she says, "I didn't want to do street cops" again.
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.