(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAY 31, 2008)
"How smoothly can you shift your sense of what’s right in order to do what is required to complete the mission?"
I remember watching old cowboy films when I was a child, and I always knew who the good guys and the bad guys were. The good guys wore white, and the bad guys wore black. Simple. Ask anyone.
In April Smith’s novel Judas Horse, FBI Special Agent Ana Grey finds out the hard way that it’s not so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. This novel, the third featuring Ana Grey, finds her back on assignment again after killing a crazed policeman seven months earlier. When the novel begins, the remains of FBI agent Steve Crawford, Ana’s one-time fiancé, have been found in a remote area of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Steve, it seems, was working undercover, attempting to infiltrate an Animal Rights group known as FAN (Free Animals Now). Ana accepts an undercover assignment to discover Steve’s killers by following in his footsteps and infiltrating FAN.
After attending FBI undercover school in Quantico, Virginia and armed with a worn copy of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, Ana Grey morphs into Darcy DeGuzman. With a fabricated background that includes a history of Animal Rights work and an assault of an employee of the Los Angeles Animal Services during a demonstration, Ana—now Darcy—moves to Oregon in order to make contact with FAN. Operation Wildcat begins.
A large section of the novel is devoted to Ana training as Darcy, and this fast-paced portion of the novel is extremely interesting as it sets the stage for the question of identity and loyalty. I’ve often wondered if undercover agents who maintain a successful fake persona ever feel confused or conflicted about their missions, and author April Smith certainly explores that aspect of undercover work.
In a manner that defies credibility, Darcy very quickly infiltrates FAN and becomes involved with four FAN activists. The novel patronizingly identifies FAN as a “façade”—a hodge-podge coalition of activists, do-gooders and “liberals” behind which lurks a “violent anarchist group.” The so-called "anarchists" that Darcy mingles with are caricatures: there’s Megan, an aging silver-laden hippie, her boyfriend Julius Emerson Phelps, and two emotionally fragile teenagers. In reality, Phelps is a loony former FBI agent with delusions of being “Allfather” –a despotic figure based on his favourite film Apocalypse Now. A practiced hand at morphing into new identities, he’s seems to be masquerading as an anarchist in order to cover his nefarious activities. The novel, however, fails to make this point clear, and fails to explore the slippage in Phelps’s behaviour. For example, Phelps (former agent Stone) and Megan are supposed to be vegans, but the novel describes Phelps eating cheese and stuffing himself with doughnuts which no doubt contain some animal products. Unfortunately the novel doesn’t address the jarring dissonance between Phelps’s professed anarchism and the reality of his violent behaviour, and we are left instead with the impression that perhaps the highly paranoid, volatile, deranged Phelps is supposed to be a credible anarchist.
It’s really impossible to read the acronym FAN without thinking about either ELF or ALF. Unfortunately, the novel describes FAN members running around with dynamite, blowing up structures willy nilly, regardless of human casualties, and even at one point planning an assassination! Furthermore the novel places FAN members at a neo-Nazi hangout and financing their operation with meth labs. So Judas Horse really contributes to the plethora of misinformation and the misconceptions of ALF and ELF.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed the manner in which the novel played with the notion of the good guys and the bad guys. Stalwart gung-ho FBI agent Ana/Darcy begins her mission believing that FAN members are domestic terrorists, but she then discovers that life is not black and white. Once undercover, the borders between good and bad rapidly become blurred. Surrounded by corruption, she no longer knows who to trust, and she slides into the gray netherworld of perforated ideology.
- Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for April Smith
- IdentityTheory interview with April Smith
- The New York Times review of Be the One
- BookReporter reivew of Good Morning, Killer
- Synopsis of A Star for Mrs. Blake
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About the Author:
April Smith was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. She graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, and Boston University cum laude and With Distinction in Creative Writing. She holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Stanford University.
She is a Emmy-nominated writer-producer in television. Her accomplishments included being the first producer for the television show Cagney and Lacey, first show ever to feature two woman cops. One secret to her success was hiring Robert Crais as writer. Later, She wrote a couple episodes for Chicago Hope. Her first job in television staff job in Hollywood was on Lou Grant, where she learned to break stories, do research and write dramatic dialogue with the best in the business. More recently, she has written two teleplays for Nightmares & Dreamscapes from the stories of Stephen King.
She and her husband live in a 1922 Dutch cottage in Santa Monica, California.