The FBI's appealing heroine

September 04, 1994|By Ann G. Sjoerdsma

Title: "North of Montana"

Author: April Smith

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 304 pages, $23

At the satisfying conclusion to April Smith's adrenalin-powered first novel, "North of Montana," set in Los Angeles, not the Big Sky state, I cast my mind back to its tough-talking law-enforcement heroine: Special Agent Ana Grey, FBI.

This is a woman (and an author) I could learn to love.

Ambitious, brash, selfish, confident, and at times annoying and foolish beyond measure, the 29-year-old Grey devours "Dodger Dogs" and malted ice milks, swims a mile a day to relieve tension, hard-drives a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda convertible, packs a .357 Magnum -- "Freeze, or I'll blow your head off like a ripe watermelon" -- and angles unabashedly for a promotion.

She cop-banters with the best of them, handles men by avoiding them "at all costs," and doesn't own a comforting cat.

To cap off her profile in courage and independence, Ana's only family, the beloved Poppy, a retired Santa Monica policeman who helped raise his granddaughter, is too egotistical to enjoy her success.

But the beauty of Ana Grey is her lack of beauty, or more precisely, Smith's refusal to describe her physical beauty. Subject, not object, Grey spews forth like molten lava, hot, brilliant, fluid, dangerous and all too real; a seething volcano of messy insecurities, repressed memories and desires, and a whole lot of cheek. Her internal monologue, deep without being excessive or contrived, propels the narrative when the spirited dialogue or vigorous prose doesn't.

What does Ana look like? I don't know. What difference does it make? She and her novel are rich in character.

A television writer who intimately knows her California turf, April Smith works inside-out with intense emotion and unflagging action in "North of Montana" and rarely falters with a bow to plot convenience.

After single-handedly making a bank-robbery collar that she boastfully calls the "perfect bust," Ana doesn't get the transfer to Kidnapping and Extortion that she expects.

Her resentful Texan supervisor, one of many sharply drawn members of the FBI office ensemble, blocks her promotion with a bad word, and Ana ends up heading a "test" investigation into a movie star's claim that a prominent doctor got her hooked on pills. When the screen doyenne, an Elizabeth Taylor-type surrounded by a slick entourage, obstructs Ana in her pursuit of justice, the case begins to reek of Hollywood politics, not criminal wrongdoing.

Ana has a flirtatious, and guilt-ridden, relationship with her married partner, Mike Donnato, who redeems the rest of the sexist FBI squad.

Their pas de deux is quite appealing. Showing no compulsion to clean up the mess between them, Ms. Smith leaves the pair dangling, in a most compromising position.

Ms. Sjoerdsma is a lawyer and writer who lives in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

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