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Novel about drug wars is addictive

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the war correspondent-turned-novelist, refers to himself as a sailor and a reader. Those passions serve him well in The Queen of the South, as Perez-Reverte hooks the reader with effortless grace."The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die," he writes. "She knew it with such certainty that she froze, the razor motionless, her hair stuck to her face by the steam from the hot water that condensed in big drops on the tile walls."

With that, Teresa Mendoza, a poor girl from the drug haven of Sinaloa, Mexico, begins a terrifying, thrilling and heart-breaking journey into the kill-or-be-killed world of international smuggling. The opening sequence revolves around Teresa's boyfriend, Guero, who has given her a cellphone that will ring only if he has been killed by his bosses, the backers of a powerful drug cartel.

Guero Dávila is a daring Cessna pilot known for his ability to get a plane loaded with cocaine in the air from short airstrips of 300 yards. He found Teresa Mendoza working the streets, a pretty, ignorant and battered victim of poverty. He is murdered after drug lords learn he's been cutting side deals on his delivery runs. Teresa, prompted by the dreaded call, now must run for her life.

Standard airport fare, right? Not in Perez-Reverte's nimble hands, where the story becomes a powerful combination of literary intrigue and nuanced, well-drawn characters. The Spanish author, whose works are routine bestsellers at home, has been building a wider American audience in recent years. The Queen of the South is his most accessible novel, a taut tale filled with high-speed chases on the Straits of Gibraltar, as well as affecting portraits of damaged souls and psyches.

The book is the sixth of Perez-Reverte's works published here (a five-novel series based on a character named Alatriste, a 17th Century hit man, debuts in America next year, with a film version starring Viggo Mortensen following in 2006).

The Queen of the South covers more than a decade, alternating from the perspective of a journalist gathering sources and information for a chronicle of Mendoza's now-legendary reign as the Queen of the South, and flashbacks of the events occurring in real time.

Early in the novel, the journalist has landed a long-awaited interview with Teresa Mendoza at a safe house in Mexico, 12 years after her boyfriend's murder. How she escaped, and what she is running from now, form the heart of the narrative.

As Perez-Reverte always tells interviewers, he is a reader first, then a writer. His fiction often pays tribute to literary heroes while serving as a springboard for new stories. In his new book, the author turns to an Alexandre Dumas classic, The Count of Monte Cristo, for inspiration. That classic's plot, in which an uneducated prisoner named Edmond Dantes is introduced to books and learning and hidden treasures -- is mirrored in Perez-Reverte's story.

Teresa Mendoza winds up in a Spanish prison after fleeing Mexico and becoming enmeshed in a hashish operation along the Moroccan coast. There she befriends Patricia O'Farrell, her cultured, if damaged, cellmate.

One of the books O'Farrell recommends to Teresa is, yes, Monte Cristo. And, yes, there's a treasure hidden beyond the prison cell. In her case, it's 500,000 kilos of cocaine stashed in a cave, rather than gold and jewels. Teresa Mendoza adores the Dumas book and, even as she becomes the cruel queen of a drug-running empire, it remains close to her heart. Literature becomes one of the few things she can trust and embrace. As Teresa and her cellmate complete their prison sentences, they begin the hunt for the cocaine. Perez-Reverte weaves Dumas into his story with superb effect:

"It might be that ambition, plans, dreams, even bravery, or faith even faith in God, she decided, shivering -- didn't give you strength, but took it away. Because hope, even the mere desire to survive, made a person vulnerable, bound to possible pain and defeat. Maybe that was the basic difference between some human beings and others, and that was the case with her. Maybe Edmond Dantes was wrong, and the only solution was not to trust, and not to hope."

Such notions become more costly as Teresa Mendoza morphs into a multimillionaire. She has power, wealth and luxury, but nothing more. She eschews love, even the hope of love.

At 35, Teresa has enjoyed a meteoric, improbable rise and, like any executive, feels the stress of maintaining a precarious empire. Relentless deadlines, increased competition and petty, internecine feuds threaten to cripple her organization. Not to mention persistent attention from governments in Europe, Mexico and the United States. Perez-Reverte doesn't sugarcoat the savage nature of drug wars. Threats, deceit and death loom over every aspect of the proceedings. In a delicious twist, one of Teresa's would-be assassins becomes her bodyguard. No one, from the lowliest runner to the scores of bribed judges, federal agents and politicians on Teresa's payroll, emerges unscathed.

The author's years as a war correspondent lend the story an air of authenticity. It's obvious that Perez-Reverte knows the dusty streets of Sinaloa as well as he knows Spain and Morocco. In Sinaloa, drugs are illegal, but vital to the sluggish economy. The novel depicts the crude vitality of cartel life, with blood-soaked ballads, known as narcocorridos, setting the tone:

"As corridos had been to the Revolution in those bygone days, so the narcocorridos were the new epics, the modern legends of a Mexico that was there and had no intention of going anywhere, or changing -- among other reasons because a not inconsiderable part of the national economy depended on the drugs. It was a marginal, hard world, of weapons, corruption, and drugs, in which the only law not broken was the law of supply and demand."

Much as Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet inspired a U2 song using characters from the novel several years ago, so, too, has Perez-Reverte caused life to imitate art imitating life. Los Tigres del Norte scored a No. 1 album on the Latin Billboard charts with their CD based upon The Queen of the South.

Like any good ballad, Perez-Reverte's is bittersweet. As the novel comes to a close, he delivers a double-barreled shot of profound violence and plot twist. In the end, Teresa's tale proves more enchanting and addictive than any narcotic could ever be.

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