It’s very clear from April Smith’s White Shotgun that she’s a talented writer with a gift for plot, setting, and character. It was thus interesting – and a little disappointing – to learn from her preceding novel Judas Horse that these gifts alone aren’t quite enough to build a satisfying suspense novel. The two missing elements were organization and narrative voice. (Happily, White Shotgun puts these essentials in place.)
Judas Horse introduces us to Ana Grey, an FBI agent whose half-Salvadoran, half-Anglo heritage makes her a misfit in any setting and thus, in a twisted way, an ideal candidate for undercover work. Judas Horse is deeply concerned with questions of loyalty – guess you can tell from the title, huh? A Judas horse is actually a tame mare who is used as a decoy to lure herds of wild mustangs into corrals to be culled. In Smith’s novel, Ana Grey goes undercover to join a group of eco-terrorists who turn out to be … well, read it and see.
The problem is that Smith has enough material here for a novel and a half. I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters, let alone keeping track of which side they were on. (Sometimes I had that woozy, baffled feeling you get in John LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor series – but Smith isn’t quite in that league.) What’s more, Ana Grey dives into her cover character before we really grasp who she is as Ana, and the flashbacks to her unhappy youthful relationships feel cursory. If you can’t follow the characters you can’t follow the plot, though it was always clear something was going to blow up.
And then there’s the aforesaid voice. Judas Horse is narrated by Ana, in the present tense. But from time to time, Smith shifts away from Ana, and even into the past. This may be a conscious attempt to break away from the conventions of the thriller. But Smith, according to her website, is a screen writer and I wonder if she isn’t more accustomed to a narrative form that relies heavily on images to convey information. Her visual imagination means that the settings in rural Oregon are vividly described, but I’m literal-minded enough to feel unmoored when a first-person narrative leaves the reliable and familiar “I” to visit another character’s experience and thoughts. Of course it’s sometimes difficult to provide your readers with essential information when you’re writing in the first person – but isn’t that why they pay us the big bucks? (Joke, OK?)
And while I’m griping, I agree with Chelsea who pointed out on the White Shotgun post that “Sterling McCord” is a terrible name for Ana’s fellow spy/love interest (is that the name of a car? perfume? preppy clothing brand?). But this is just nitpicking. I’m certainly going to keep my eye on Ana Grey.