cover image North of Montana

North of Montana

April Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (295pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43197-8

In a stunningly assured debut, Smith has produced a crime thriller distinguished by an unflagging pace, authoritative use of detail and an appealing heroine. In vigorous, literate prose, Smith delivers characters of depth and dimension who inhabit the wildly diverse worlds of Southern California, each rendered with a cinematic eye. Her protagonist is Ana Grey, an ambitious, brash young FBI agent. With seven years in the L.A. field office and a recent ``perfect bust'' of a bank robber, Ana is ready to move up. A resentful superior stands in the way, however, and instead of getting transferred, Ana is assigned to a high-profile case involving a megawatt movie star of a certain age who has brought charges against a local doctor for addicting her to drugs. At the same time, Ana receives a phone call asking her to help the two young children of a recent street-shooting victim in Santa Monica--an immigrant from El Salvador who told friends that Ana was her cousin. Ana insists it's a hoax: abandoned as an infant by her father, a migrant worker from Mexico, she was raised by her mother, now deceased, and her beloved grandfather, a retired Santa Monica cop. Then Ana learns that the Salvadoran woman had worked for the physician charged in the drug case and finds herself tangled in events that lace together both personal and professional aspects of her life and trigger a troubling series of forgotten memories of her childhood. Moving through an array of settings--L.A.'s crowded Latino section, El Piojilla; the blue-collar Santa Monica neighborhood of her youth; the modern elegance of the ``overbuilt upscale enclave'' known as ``north of Montana''--Ana grapples with more death, Hollywood politics, personal betrayal and her own seething desires. Wisely leaving some ends untied, Smith resolves the central themes of this seamless narrative in this smashing story. 200,000 first printing; Literary Guild selection; Random House AudioBook. (Sept.)