Evidently I have read April Smith’s series of Ana Grey murder mysteries in reverse order. The drawback to this is that I am piecing together Ana’s psychology in the wrong direction, along with the dynamics of some of her office relationships. (Thus missing out on some hot stuff until now, I have to say.) The advantage, though, of saving North of Montana until now is that it’s a crackerjack mystery, satisfying on almost every front.
My one hesitation has to do with Ana herself, and it holds true throughout the series. (See Good Morning, Killer.) She may be an FBI agent but she is a real hothead, and North of Montana was full of moments when I mentally urged her not to take the rash action she seemed intent on. But despite my silent pleading, she keeps on accosting the bank robber, entering the burning building, etc.; that’s who Ana is. And we are, after all, in the market for drama when we pick up this kind of novel.
Ana is confronted by a series of puzzles in North of Montana. First is the death of a young Latina woman named Violeta Alvarado, who may be Ana’s cousin. Second is a drug investigation: movie star Jayne Mason (read Elizabeth Taylor/Judy Garland) claims an orthopedist has gotten her addicted to drugs. Third is the puzzle of how young female Ana can assert herself professionally in the mostly-male FBI office. And finally, as she investigates the drug case and Violeta’s death — which turn out to interlock: this is fiction, after all — suppressed memories from her childhood begin to surface and answer a number of unasked questions.
The book rockets along, taking you from one setting to another, twisting and turning unpredictably. One of Smith’s great gifts is her ability to sketch the minor character — does this come from screenwriting? She gives a limousine driver, a doctor, a potential witness just enough quirky details to be memorable, then drops them when they’re no longer useful, as a writer must. Best of all, the setting is brilliantly observed. Silly me, I thought I was picking up a mystery/cowboy tale (not so dumb, considering Smith’s Judas Horse) but “north of Montana” is a geographical term, referring to the posh nouveau riche part of Santa Monica, CA, where part of the novel takes place. Good Morning, Killer shares this SoCal setting but it feels as if Smith has piled years of observation into North of Montana, which gives this novel a special richness. In one little vignette, Ana visits the tiny house in Santa Monica where she grew up, and the real estate agent’s monologue combined with the sense memories of her childhood home create a sense of melancholy worthy of Joan Didion. Which is saying a heck of a lot, for a murder mystery.