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"The Queen of the South"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 7, 2004)
"There is one necessary skill…in this business. Looking at a man and instantly knowing two things. First, how much he's going to sell himself for. And second, when you're going to have to kill him."
The drug trade and its connections throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the Mediterranean come alive in Arturo Perez-Reverte's latest novel, which is quite different from the Perez-Reverte novels which have come before it. Though he has always been known for his intricate intellectual puzzles in novels such as The Flanders Panel, The Club Dumas, and The Seville Communion, here he writes the "biography" of Teresa Mendoza, a young woman from Sinaloa, Mexico, who becomes the mastermind of a multimillion dollar drug empire operating from Marbella, Spain. The complex intellectual puzzles of Perez-Reverte's earlier novels give way to a different kind of challenge here--understanding the business networks Teresa builds with drug lords from Russia, Italy, Morocco, and Colombia, and agents of various governmental agencies whom she buys off or controls. As she becomes a successful business woman, known as "The Queen of the South," she challenges other drug lords and builds her empire, and the suspense evolves: Will she stay alive? And how?
Flashing back to her earlier life, the novel reveals Teresa as an uneducated but attractive twenty-three-year-old in Mexico, in love with Guero Davila, a Chicano pilot from San Antonio involved in shipping coca. Working through a cartel enjoying the complicity of the police, the Ministry of Defense, and even the President of the Republic, Guero is known as "the king of the short runway," a pilot able to drop from the skies, make a pickup or a connection, and be gone almost instantly. Guero had always told her, "If this [phone] ever rings, it's because I'm dead. So run. As far and as fast as you can, prietita…And don't stop, because I won't be there anymore to help you." When she suddenly gets the call, she follows Guero's instructions to the letter, racing to deliver important papers to Don Epifanio Vargas, in exchange for her life, and running, with Vargas's help, through Mexico City into Spain.
In the ensuing months, she travels to Morocco, works in a bar, and puts her knowledge of drug transportation to work by involving herself in hash-running between Morocco and Spain, a job that results in a short jail sentence but a life-long friendship with another inmate, Patty O'Farrell, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy Spanish family. Soon after her release from jail, she and Patty set up a big-time drug trafficking business of their own, with Teresa running the show and becoming, eventually, the person with whom everyone must deal if they want to get ahead in the business.
Teresa's story is not told in linear fashion. An unnamed speaker/narrator, presumably Perez-Reverte himself, has come to Sinaloa to investigate and describe Teresa Mendoza's life and the drug-smuggling business in which she has participated. Interviewing everyone he can find who has any information about the business and those in and out of government who benefit from it, the speaker/narrator begins to blur the line between fiction and fact—some of the people he interviews in the course of the novel are, in fact, real people. Dedicating the novel to Cesar "Batman" Guemes, a famous "narco;" Elmer Mendoza, the author of several "splendid" novels; and Julio Bernal, head of the Sinaloa office of cultural affairs, the author includes these people in the novel as characters and uses the information they give him to add depth to the novel. The speaker's up-close-and-personal interviews with these men (whom he calls "my carnales") and others who know about the drug business in Europe help create a fine sense of realism for this novel about larger-than-life characters.
Teresa Mendoza, while not a character with whom the reader will identify, is one for whom the author manages to develop a certain amount of sympathy. Drawn into an unsavory business because she has few other options to get out of poverty, Teresa is an entrepreneur of great intelligence, and it is this characteristic, combined with her ability to avoid creating any sort of trail that will implicate her legally, that keeps her going in such a dog-eat-dog world. She knows how to handle people—and when and how to kill them, if necessary—and she never lets her feelings get in the way of business. When she eventually discovers that her greatest enemy is running for an important governmental post, she decides to confront him and put an end to his career, a decision which leads to climactic confrontations.
Those who are fans of Perez-Reverte's other mysteries may find that this novel lacks the intellectual challenges of those, but other readers may find that this novel, by concentrating on character, allows the author to broaden the scope of his writing in a new direction. The novel is episodic but fast paced, despite the sometimes unwelcome intrusions of the narrator/speaker, and Perez-Reverte succeeds in presenting a broad and intriguing picture of the business aspects of drug smuggling and those who make it their careers.
- Amazon readers rating: from 42 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Queen of the South at the author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Club Dumas (1993, 1996 in US) (in Spanish)
- The Flanders Panel (1994, 1996 in US) (in Spanish)
- The Seville Communion (1995, 1998 in US) (in Spanish)
- The Fencing Master (1999 in US) (in Spanish)
- The Nautical Chart (2000, October 2001) (in Spanish)
- The Queen of the South (2002, June 2004 in US)
- The Painter of Battles (January 2008)
El Capitán Alatriste Historical Series (in process of being translated to English):
- El capitán Alatriste (1996) --- Captain Alatriste (2005)
- Limpieza de sangre (1997) --- Purity of Blood (2006)
- El sol de breda (1998) -- The Sun Over Breda (2007)
- El oro del rey (2000) -- The King's Gold (2008)
- El caballero del jubón amarillo (2003) -- The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet (September 2009)
- Pirates of Levant (September 2010)
Other historical novels:
Movies from books:
- The Ninth Gate (1999) based on The Club Dumas
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- The official English website for Arturo Pérez-Reverte
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Nautical Chart and The Seville Communion
- BookPage review of The Queen of the South
- The Guardian review of The Queen of the South
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for The Queen of the South
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Painter of Battles
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About the Author:
Arturo Pérez-Reverte was born in 1951 in Cartagena, Spain. . A retired war journalist, he covered conflicts in Angola, Bosnia, Croatia, El Salvador, Lebanon, Libya, Nicaragua, Romania, the Persian Gulf, and Sudan, among others. He now writes fiction full-time.
His books have been translated into 34 languages in 50 countries and have sold millions of copies. In 1998, Club Dumas was nominated for A World Fantasy Award. Watch for the Roman Polanski movie starring Johnny Depp called The Ninth Gate. It is based on The Club Dumas.
Pérez-Reverte lives in Madrid, Spain, where he was recently elected to the Spanish Royal Academy.