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Saturday, June 26, 2004

'Queen' reigns over man's world of drugs

'Queen' reigns over man's world of drugs

Nancy Pate
Orlando Sentinel
Jun. 27, 2004 12:00 AM


They call them narcocorridos, ballads about Mexican drug runners. Just songs, right?

So thinks the narrator of Arturo Perez-Reverte's intriguing new novel about a drug runner's girlfriend who transforms herself into the legendary Queen of the South, a "woman who appeared on the society pages the same week she turned up in the newspapers' police blotter."

Her name is Teresa Mendoza, and in the beginning, she is just a dark-haired girl with big, black eyes. Her lover, Guero Davila, flies blocks of cocaine and bales of marijuana in his Cessna, eluding the federales and the DEA. Then one afternoon, as she listens to Los Tigres del Norte singing a narcocorrido on the stereo, the phone rings. She knows what it means. Guero is dead. Run.

Fast-forward a dozen years. The narrator, a magazine writer working on a story about the Queen of the South, is at last face-to-face with his subject. He wants to know about Sinaloa, Mexico, where it all started, when the blond, smiling Guero first put his aviator-jacket-clad arm around the vulnerable girl from the barrio. Then the narrator tells readers not only about Teresa's escape to Spain, where she worked as a cashier in a bar and fell for another drug runner, but also about how she went from prisoner to player, heading a Mediterranean drug-trafficking ring. How she became a woman to be reckoned with in a man's world.

Perez-Reverte neatly splices the reporter's recounting of events with flashbacks in which Teresa commands center stage. Suspenseful action sequences, in which Teresa plans drug deals or confronts enemies, balance more-reflective passages as she tries not to remember too much.

"She had discovered too many uncertainties and horrors lurking in every thought that went beyond the here and now. But as long as she didn't actually think, the remembering would give her no more than a sensation of movement toward nowhere, like a boat adrift."

The Queen of the South is a departure for Perez-Reverte, a former journalist whose book sales in his native Spain are comparable to those of Stephen King in this country and whose award-winning novels are a staple of European bestseller lists. His previous five books published in the United States have been clever, stylish entertainments, sophisticated thrillers for people who think. They merge history with mystery. The Flanders Panel, for example, centers on a puzzle presented by a 15th-century painting of two chess players, while The Club Dumas follows the adventures of an antiquarian book sleuth on the trail of a rare manuscript.

These books are much more intricate than the straightforward The Queen of the South. This story, however, has inspired a song. Los Tigres del Norte recorded a narcocorrido, La Reina del Sur, when the novel was published in Spain two years ago.

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