Teresa Mendoza is a living doll, a painted, prettied-up bangle on the arm of a pilot smuggler for Mexican drug lords. She shops and drinks and waits for the inevitable for her seemingly bulletproof boyfriend to skim one kilo of cocaine too many from his murderous employers. When he does, when his bosses kill him and order everyone around him eradicated as an example, Teresa escapes to lovely, deadly Spain.

So begins The Queen of the South, the tale of a shockingly bold Mexican woman who schemes her way to the top of the only profession she knows: drug smuggling. In his newest novel, Arturo PŽrez-Reverte creates a woman whose courage, intelligence and will make her more than a match for the men around her.

PŽrez-Reverte, whose previous novels include The Flanders Panel and The Fencing Master, is in no hurry here. His research is so meticulous, his touch with characters so deft, that you are inexorably drawn into Teresa's world of international smuggling and multinational thugs. Surly Frenchmen, ham-faced Russians, elegant Moroccans all are outwitted by Teresa. Her astonishing success is chronicled by the adoring European press and brings her to the attention of her old Mexican enemies.

PŽrez-Reverte understands that the glamour of the narcosmuggler is rooted in the codes of revenge and honor that the futureless poor of all countries hold dear. He has Teresa clinging to that code as she returns to Mexico to face the killers of her first love in an unforgettable showdown that cements the Queen's legend in a country whose corridos musical poems glorifying the underdog have long championed lawless rebels.

The Queen of the South is audacious, and its heroine uncommon, but it is PŽrez-Reverte's pace, unhurried and unforced, and his superb attention to detail, that makes the Spanish novelist's sixth book so mesmerizing. The Queen of the South is that rare blessing a book by a mature writer at the top of his game, unwilling to settle for less than his best.

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