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The dame in Spain

The Queen of the South: A Novel; Arturo Perez-Reverte; Putnam: 438 pp., $25.95

June 20, 2004|Nicholas A. Basbanes | Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of "A Splendor of Letters."

Having gone through something of a lull in his most recent efforts -- let's face it, "The Flanders Panel" (1994) and "The Club Dumas" (1996) were tough acts to follow -- the Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte returns to form with a panoramic novel of the international drug trade. At its center is a resourceful woman from a hardscrabble barrio in the Mexican state of Sinaloa who becomes a smuggling entrepreneur par excellence. Acclaimed as the "Queen of the South," Teresa Mendoza challenges the adage that crime doesn't pay.

A former war correspondent adept at digging out telling facts, Perez-Reverte's stock in trade has been an ability to take a seemingly obscure subject, be it cartography, rare books, fencing or chess, and weave a compelling narrative around what might otherwise be regarded as a matrix of arcane detail. Here, it is apparent that he once again has researched his subject thoroughly, only this time the subject is anything but esoteric, with descriptions of narcotics trafficking on both sides of the Atlantic bearing the unmistakable ring of authenticity and a slam-bang narrative sure to resonate with legions of appreciative readers.

There is a decidedly visual quality to the most trenchant scenes, with speedboat sprints through the Strait of Gibraltar and Spanish customs helicopters in hot pursuit, and a modern-day equivalent of the shootout at the OK Corral. The novel takes on the texture of a modern-day epic, complete with folk ballads sung in celebration of the principal figure.

Teresa learns mightily from the men in her life. From her first lover, Guero Davila -- a bush pilot called "king of the short runway" -- she masters a critical lesson: how to intuit, in an instant, the full ramifications of a situation, wherever and whenever a vital moment develops, and act decisively upon it. That exquisite ability enables Teresa to escape certain death at the hands of pistoleros sent to kill her after Guero has been taken out by rivals, and to navigate her way through a succession of critical moments.

Relocated in Spain and working the tricky waters of the Mediterranean with Santiago Fisterra, a Galician boatman for hire, she absorbs the nuances of the way things move from place to place, knowledge that in time will ingratiate her with a charming and ruthless mobster from Russia who in another time honed his skills with the KGB. Despite her chosen vocation -- and a ready willingness to cut her losses without hesitation -- Teresa is something of a sympathetic character. She does not deal in drugs, after all; she merely moves them from place to place for others. And anyone who comes to love books as she does -- she develops a passion for reading during a stint in prison under a smitten cellmate's tutelage -- can't be entirely bad.

My one quibble with the writing is the annoying tendency Perez-Reverte has to enunciate various sounds, r-r-ring-r-r-ring for a phone, whump-whump-whump for rotor blades, roooaaarr for the engine of a boat, and so on. But otherwise this is a riveting read, and Andrew Hurley's translation from the Spanish is smooth and unobtrusive. Perez-Reverte gives thrust to the novel by way of an unnamed narrator, a journalist rounding out the details of a book he is writing about Teresa's tempestuous life. This technique has a way of telegraphing a number of the twists and turns that emerge. But in the end, that does not hamper the ebb and flow of this thriller. All the core elements, after all, are here: love, violence, betrayal and honor, and "Queen of the South" seems certain to make its way to the silver screen. *

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