How much of our lives are determined by other people’s decisions? That seems to be the central theme in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s sixth book Queen of the South, a thriller about gritty world of drug trafficking in Mexico, southern Spain and Morocco and the international business of transporting cocaine and hashish. The story follows a young Mexican woman named Teresa Mendoza, later just known infamously as La Mexicana.
The first line of the book is “The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die.” Teresa doesn’t have to answer the phone to know: the phone is a special one given to her by her boyfriend, a drug runner named Güero Dávila. He has warned her that if a call ever came, it meant he was dead, and that she had to run for her life. Teresa flees Mexico for Morocco, where she begins another unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it) romantic relationship. She keeps a low profile transporting drug shipments with her new lover until a terrible accident leaves her in jail and on her own again. But while in prison, she begins 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. She is more than a mere survivor: gaining knowledge in every endeavor she becomes involved in and using her own head for numbers and brilliant intuition, she eventually winds up heading one of the biggest drug traffic rings in the Mediterranean and the woman thriving in a world of dangerous men.
However, it still was not a life that she chose; Teresa just had to adapt to every new situation in which she found herself. Both of the men she loved were in the business, so she had to develop some knowledge into the drug world, then she made a decision out of necessity to work with Patty and before she knew it, she was the leader of a dangerous drug cartel. There’s a subtle parallel to the novel called The Count of Monte Cristo but not much because while the Monte Cristo book is almost entirely about revenge, Teresa’s story will end with a “settling of debts.” In the most spectacular fashion.
Teresa’s story is told by an unnamed speaker/narrator, presumably Perez-Reverte himself, who 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. This structural set-up was unnecessary and full of incongruities. It makes no sense why the first-person narrator, a reporter chronicling Teresa’s story, can articulate Teresa’s emotions, sexual experiences, and interior dramas, which the novel meticulously mines and the end of the book is a total cop-out. Besides those issues, I found the book is rich, compelling, thrilling and worth recommending to other people.