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Onyx reviews: The Queen of the South by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

There have been many rags-to-riches tales, but few are like The Queen of the South, in which Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte explores the enigmatic life of Teresa Mendoza, born in the lawless, impoverished Sinaloa region of northwestern Mexico. Here, narcos—drug smugglers—rule the local economy and a person's greatest aspiration is to have a corrida—a ballad recounting some famous exploit—written about him. Preferably while he's still alive. "The cemeteries of northwest Mexico are full of the graves of people somebody trusted."

When the book opens, Teresa receives the phone call she's always dreaded, the one that means her longtime lover, drug runner Güero Dávila is dead. Though she knows nothing of his business and poses no threat to Güero's enemies, tradition dictates that she must be killed as a show of strength and as a warning to others. She throws her life at the feet of a powerful man, who spirits her from the country.

The novel is told from a split perspective: the chronological third person account of her life, and the first person narrative of an unnamed journalist researching it. From the onset, this narrator makes it clear that Teresa will become famous—or infamous—but he is stingy with details. He travels across the Mediterranean to interview people who knew her or knew of her to gain insight into how she became known as the Queen of the South.

Teresa flees to Europe and hides out in Andalusia, a Spanish enclave in Morocco near Gibraltar. While working at a bar, she meets another drug runner, Santiago Fisterrá. Whereas Güero was an expert pilot, the "king of the short landing," Santiago plies his trade with speedboats, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Guardia Civil and several other authorities.

The narrator mentions The Count of Monte Cristo in the novel's opening line, and this isn't just a passing reference. The Queen of the South is illuminated by Dumas' novel, which Teresa reads during a brief stint in prison. She identifies with Edmond Dantès, who lost everything while falsely imprisoned, and who is handed the means to avenge himself once he is free. Her cellmate and protector while in prison, Patricia, gave her the book, the first of many Teresa will devour once the world of literature has been opened to her.

Like Abbé Faria, Patty has a treasure trove awaiting her on the outside: a stash of stolen drugs. Teresa and Patty sell the drugs and use the cash to establish an empire that facilitates drug smuggling transactions all across the Mediterranean. Teresa keeps her distance from the drugs themselves, providing her with a certain level of deniability. She's almost untouchable.

It's hard to imagine that a ruthless drug dealer would make a sympathetic heroine, but Pérez-Reverte, a former journalist and war correspondent, pulls it off, perhaps in part because his story is based on fact. His narrator meets up with Teresa a dozen years after her arrival in Europe and he wants to know how this once simple, unassuming, unremarkable, occasionally vulnerable woman became "a legend: a woman thriving in a world of dangerous men."

So, too, do the book's readers. Her life is exciting, fraught with danger and betrayal, but she uses her newfound power to right old wrongs committed against her and, as the book comes to its astonishing conclusion, she discovers that there were many more betrayals and deceptions in her early life than she ever suspected.

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