After carving out a solid niche for himself in the "intellectual thriller" genre by writing a number of entertainments (some good, some not) revolving around the arcane and esoteric, bestselling Spanish novelist Perez-Reverte shifts gears here with a book that is neither thriller nor obsessed with high culture paraphernalia. Quite the contrary, this is the tale of a poor, uneducated Mexican girl who, over the course of twelve years, manages to become a hugely wealthy narcotics transporter. The story of Theresa Mendoza is told partially from her perspective as events happen, and partially by an investigative reporter who is trying to write a book about her and is interviewing anyone once connected to her. Before becoming a novelist, Perez-Reverte was a well-known journalist, and his former profession informs the entire book as his fictional journalist connects the dots, from Sinaloa, Mexico to Morocco to Marbella, Spain. Some readers seem not to care for the alternating voices, but it adds much needed depth and texture to what is otherwise a fairly flat and straightforward rags to riches story.
However, unlike most gutter to penthouse tales, Theresa is not a character who always had large dreams and wanted to be "king of the world". Rather, her story shows her to be an emotionally dead soul who does whatever it takes to survive in the harsh environment she inhabits. While this is a nice change of pace from the usual Scarface hysterics, her cool reserve also means that there's no way for the reader to connect with her (unless you, too, have been on the run from hitmen). Which is not to say that she isn't believable, it's just that she's a character with a single motivation, survival, and this one track detachment gets kind of lame as she grows more and more powerful. While one can sympathize with her plight, she's not particularly sympathetic or unsympathetic--she's simply...present. Not that Perez-Reverte doesn't gamely try to make her sympathetic by showing her grant mercy more than once, and exhibit rather foolish loyalty, as well as refusing to transport heroin (since it's socially destructive, as opposed to hash and cocaine!), but this is all rather disingenuous. And contrary to what some reviewers have written, he definitely does play up her past: her dirt-poor childhood and alcoholic mother are alluded to more than once, as is her sexual abuse as a small girl. But none of this is really enough to make the reader care about a character who spends the entire story not understanding her own choices.
The book is at its best when it wallows in the details of the international drug trade, all the intricacies and logistics of getting drug A to point B--small planes, speedboats, customs helicopters, dummy ships--it all reeks of heavy research. And at the heart of it all is epic corruption on all sides. The various locales are also well rendered, from the Mexican state capital of Culiacan to the sleazy ports of Spain and Morocco, and finally the gleaming high life of Marbella. The supporting cast of characters is quite good, from Theresa's various boyfriends, to her stoic bodyguard, and the amiable Russian gangster who acts as mentor. But as in the movies, it's never a good thing when the bit players have more personality than the lead. Stylistically, Perez-Reverte does try a few tricks, such as weaving "The Count of Monte Cristo" into the plot, and making Mexican narcocorridos a recurring (and tiresome) element. (Those interested in narcocorridos should check out Elijah Wald's aptly titled book Narcocorridos.) So, there's a lot to like in the book, however the central character and storyline are flat and lifeless.
This is story of Teresa Mendoza, a young woman from Sinaloa, Mexico, as told by herself, interwoven with a reconstruction by a journalist who is researching for a book about her. This is an interesting device, but not wholly successful, as `fact' tends to get blurred with `fiction'. Teresa is the lover of Guero Davila, a drug smuggling pilot who works for a local Mexican drug boss. The action starts when Guero is caught smuggling drugs on his own account and is murdered. The `custom' is then to kill the victim's entire family and close friends to prevent them seeking revenge, and to teach others a lesson. Theresa receives a phone call to say she is next, and with the help of a powerful friend of Guero's, she flees and makes her way to southern Spanish.
The experience changes Teresa. She remakes her life with a new determination never again to be pawn in others plans, and to do whatever it takes to survive. Because of this she loses some of her humanity, and as a character she steadily becomes less sympathetic. She meets a new lover, Santiago Fisterra, who trafficks hashish across the Straight of Gibraltar in fast-moving power boats. Teresa becomes a full partner of Santiago, including sharing the dangers of the crossings. These `adventures' are well described in graphic detail and are clearly the result of considerable research. All goes well until during a particularly hectic chase by boats and a helicopter of the Spanish customs, their powerboat crashes and Santiago is killed. Teresa survives, but serves time in prison.
Here she meets Patty, the `black sheep' of a wealthy Spanish family and a drug dealer herself. She knows where a huge quantity of drugs, owned by a Russian dealer, and though to have been lost, is hidden in a remote cave on the coast, accessible only from the sea. When they are released they recover the drugs and do a deal with the Russian which starts Teresa on the road to being the major player in the drug transportation business, hiring her services to drug cartels in Spain and abroad and proving to others that she is a ruthless as any of them. Again, the author's research shows itself, with detailed descriptions of the logistics of getting the cargo from its source to its destination, involving planes, a range of different boats, decoy vessels etc.
Running through the book is the smell of corruption and betrayal; the police, custom's officers, politicians, the judiciary are all vulnerable, with only a few heroic characters maintaining their integrity. Even close friends will betray you if the circumstances demand it. Betrayals are rarely forgotten, and the book ends with Teresa returning to Mexico twelve years after her departure to settle some old scores relating to the murder of Guero.
The book has many good points. There is a strong cast of supporting characters, including Teresa's fatalistic Mexican bodyguard, and the Russian gangster, with whom she forms a close bond. Most are well described and believable. There are also very good descriptions of scenes in bars and the countryside, but a weak point is that like the scenes and details of smuggling they tend to be repetitious and contribute to the excessive length of the book (over 600 pages in paperback). The rapid rise of Teresa following her deal with the Russian, and even the deal itself, is another weak point. Overall, this is an original novel with much to recommend it, but it would have been better if it had been more focused and shorter.
on 23 May 2009
`The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die. 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 condensed on the tile walls. R-r-ring-r-r-ring. She stood very still, holding her breath as though immobility or silence might change the course of what had already happened.'
If only half the world's books could open as snappily as that.
This is the epic story of Teresa Mendoza, a tinselly Mexican girl who falls in love with Güero Dávila a drug smuggling pilot. She is not so pretty, but not so ugly either, young and naïve, submissive and doting - just like a narco's morra should be. When her man is caught playing both sides and killed, Teresa knows that her life is next. Friendless and terrified, Teresa flees, ending up in the Spanish city Melilla. There, it's not long before she meets the enigmatic, Santiago Fisterra, who trafficks hashish across the Straight of Gibraltar, and so the legend of the Queen of the South is born.
In the spirit of The Count of Monte Cristo, Pérez-Reverte has crafted a novel that keeps your eyes stuck to the page, the way flies stick to flypaper. Skilfully manipulating the ebb and flow of the novel's tension, Pérez-Reverte explores Teresa's story against a glamorous Mediterranean backdrop. The narrative moves between his heroine, and that of her unnamed and unauthorized biographer, playing with the reader's perspective in ways that masterfully tighten the plot. His descriptions of places and people are flawless, his ability to put you in a particular situation unmatched.
This is an impeccably well-researched novel, a fact that shines through every paragraph. Imbued with class, and simmering with cool sensuality, I believe this novel will take Arturo Pérez-Reverte to new heights in his already successful career. Ten out of ten.
on 24 December 2005
Best read of the year, engrossing and gripping. The fact that so much of the action takes place in a part of Spain most English know so well adds to the drama. The late night drug busting sea crossings did detract a little from the rythm of the story but over all I could not put the book down.
The drug trade throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the Mediterranean come alive in this Arturo Perez-Reverte novel, quite different from his intellectual mysteries. 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. This novel's challenge lies not in an intellectual puzzle, but in understanding the business networks Teresa builds with drug lords from Russia, Italy, Morocco, and Colombia, along with various agents of government whom she buys off. As she becomes a successful businesswoman, known as "The Queen of the South," the suspense develops: Will she stay alive? And how?
The story begins in Mexico when Teresa is twenty-three. Uneducated but attractive, she is in love with Guero Davila, a Chicano pilot involved in shipping coca. When she suddenly receives a phone call telling her to run for her life, she does so, escaping through Mexico City into Spain, and then Morocco. Putting her knowledge of drug transportation to work by involving herself in hash-running between Morocco and Spain, she ends up with a short jail sentence but an important friendship with another inmate, Patty O'Farrell, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy Spanish family. When they are released, they set up a big-time drug trafficking business, with Teresa running the show and becoming, eventually, the person with whom everyone in the business must deal.
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 business. Interviewing everyone with any information, he inserts himself and his interviews into the narrative. Soon the line begins to blur between fiction and fact, since some of the people he interviews, such as the three people to whom he dedicates the novel, are, in fact, real people who are included as characters in the novel. These add depth and a fine sense of realism to the novel.
Although Teresa Mendoza is not a character with whom the reader will identify, the author develops a certain amount of sympathy for her. Teresa is an entrepreneur of great intelligence, and this, combined with her ability to avoid creating any sort of trail that will implicate her legally, keeps her going in her dog-eat-dog world. The novel is episodic but fast paced, despite the sometimes unwelcome intrusions of the narrator/speaker, and Perez-Reverte succeeds in presenting a broad, intriguing picture of the business of drug smuggling and those who make it their careers. Mary Whipple
on 5 February 2006
I am a big Perez-Reverte fan, and have read most if not all of his books that have been translated into English. So I was really looking forward to reading this big book (430 pages or so in hardback).
This is not however the Perez-Reverte of The Fencing Master or The Dumas Club, but clearly shows the author branching out into a different style. Whilst well-researched and elegantly written, the story of a Mexican woman who gets mixed up in the world of drugs and gangsters is told in a journalistic, slow-paced, semi-biographical style which one can admire without enjoying.
I gave up this novel half way through, and hope that Mr Perez-Reverte hasn't totally forsaken the style of his earlier work.
on 10 May 2014
It's not my usual cup of tea but I came across it and just couldn't put it down, you could almost smell the sea between the lines and visualise the scenes of Mexico and Spain, hear the Mexican corridos, fall in love with Santiago and imagine the characters as if watching a movie. It made me think that it has to be based on real events and after researching I found that the real woman behind this story is much less glamorous than the one created in the book. Arturo Perez-Reverte has created a romantic, insightful, intelligent and thrilling story which to me was a delight to read.
on 12 March 2010
The first fifty pages are so good that nothing else matters. First rate writing. Towards the end APR has fallen in love with his hero and wants her to live, as do we, but one cant help being a little sad because he does.
on 3 January 2015
Similar to Don Winslow's Power of The Dog, this book is brilliant and if you're actually interested in the drug trade you will appreciate the detail. The fictional details make it a great read/
on 24 November 2006
This is my book of the year so far, much to my surprise, despite being quite different to Perez-Reverte's normal gentle intellectual thrillers.
This is the tale of Theresa Mendoza, a Mexican drug-runner's moll - poor, unambitious and unremarkable - who becomes a narcotics queen and a quite remarkable businesswoman. The story is told partly by Theresa herself as events unfold, and partly by her erstwhile biographer (who I assume to be Perez-Reverte himself).
However, the strength of this novel is that it couldn't be much further from the standard formula for a rags-to-riches tale. First and foremost, as you might expect in the world of drug trafficking, the moral framework is utterly foreign to most readers. In parallel, it is a real challenge to "like" the heroine - she is (in her own perception) emotionless, unambitious, one-dimensional and introverted. It is her biographer's perspective that adds colour and depth, and helps the reader to build a grudging respect for this astute, resilient woman.
So the success of the novel is in prising the reader away from comfortable morals, familiar patterns, predictable twists and turns and black-and-white characters. Of course, on top of that readers can rely on the staples of Perez-Reverte's writing - there is a fabulous quality to his language, he paints locations in beautiful detail and he puts a great deal of craft into his secondary characters (particularly Theresa's Russian sponsor and her friend "Lieutenant" Patty O'Farrell). The technical detail around the planning and logistics of the drug trade is fantastic.
In summary, not a comfortable read and certainly not perfect, but intriguing and rewarding.