The first thing to know when reading "White Shotgun," the fourth installment of April Smith's wonderful Ana Grey series, is that the "mob" is an outdated term. Nor is it correct to refer to "the mafia" in the singular. It's "mafias" now, since, as an FBI colleague explains to Ana, in Italy "there's no single organization but — aren't we lucky? — lots of family-operated crime groups."
The second is the meaning of the novel's title: "lupara bianca" (white shotgun) is, in the lingo of the mafias, a murder in which the body is never found. It's a terrifying warning to an enemy, a hint of more ominous events to come.
The opening scene of this smart, briskly moving novel involves a white shotgun: An Italian woman named Lucia Vincenzo disappears one night and meets with a gruesome end. The significance of her death soon becomes apparent.
Meanwhile, on leave from the FBI, her future uncertain, agent Ana Grey witnesses a terrifying drive-by shooting at an Italian restaurant in London. She's there with the love of her life, Sterling McCord, whose similarly itinerant lifestyle (he works for a private security firm) makes their relationship a series of joyous reunions and inevitable departures. "It's easy to avoid talking about the future when you tacitly agree there might not be one," Smith writes.
No sooner has Ana recovered from the shooting incident than she's abruptly ordered to go to Italy. The FBI informs her that a woman named Cecilia Maria Nicosa, claiming to be Ana's half-sister, has been trying to contact her. As it turns out, Cecilia is married to Nicoli Nicosa, a coffee importer and the head of Italy's version of a Starbucks empire. He happened to be carrying on a rather public affair with Lucia Vincenzo, and the FBI believes he may have connections to the mafias and to international drug trafficking. Under the pretext of a "reunion" with Cecilia, Ana is instructed to investigate Nicosa's business dealings.
"To do business at his level in society — believe me, nobody is clean," a colleague tells Ana. "They all swim in the same swamp."
Setting a story of intrigue in Italy is itself a pleasure, but Smith has staged hers around the exciting annual Palio festival in Siena. (Anyone who has ever attended Il Palio, as it is known, is familiar with the magnificence of the spectacle and its impossible crowds.) Simply put, Il Palio is a 90-second horse race around a dirt track on the town's piazza, "filled to capacity with life-and-death drama, spectators clinging to every ledge." It's an event of passion, pride and "mad ecstasy." The 10 competing riders represent different contrade, or neighborhoods, many of which have been fierce enemies for centuries.
That locale makes Ana's mission rather challenging. As Nicoli explains bluntly, "We have laws, of course, but nobody pays attention. We will always be a collection of dysfunctional tribal families ruled by old men who want to settle scores."
Ana is dazzled by the 13th century compound that Cecilia and Nicoli call home, and she's surprised by the sudden bond she feels with the half-sister she has never known. She tries to sort out Cecilia's relationship with Nicoli, which seems strong despite his rather public infidelity. "We break apart, we heal, we continue," Cecilia says, explaining to Ana how her marriage endures.
When Cecilia's son Giovanni is stabbed, possibly due to a drug deal gone wrong, and Cecilia disappears without warning, Ana realizes that her investment in the case has become intensely personal. She worries that she may never again see Cecilia, because as an agent tells her, "You have a high-profile lady married to someone with whom, let's say, the mafias have a beef." Ana fears this may turn out to be another white shotgun case. And as she delves further, she realizes that her notions of good guys and bad guys are more complicated than she had assumed.
Smith manages to sustain the various strands of tension in her story well, subtly moving from one subplot to another and bringing them together brilliantly in the end. "White Shotgun" gets the job done as a satisfying thriller, but what's even more impressive is the crisp, spare writing throughout ("Curtains of laundry flutter from the windows above her. A car pulls off a ramp. A white businessman steps out.").
It's tempting to recommend this fine novel as a beach read, but "White Shotgun" is better than that, more substantive and nuanced than you might expect.
Ciuraru is the author of "Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times