"The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die."
This is the first sentence of The Queen of the South, a 2002 novel by the Spanish writer, Arturo Perez-Reverte. A few years ago, a friend recommended The Club Dumas by Perez-Reverte which I enjoyed and started me on a binge of reading his novels. I've now read eleven.
The Queen of the South is his best work (most of the folks I know who've read his books agree). The boyfriend of a young Mexican women, Teresa Mendoza, is involved in the drug trade. Things go badly and she flees to Spain to become a new (but not completely different) person. Her new life becomes notorious and the narrator of the novel is a journalist trying to reconstruct it. It's one of those books where both the plot and the main character keep you equally engaged. The Washington Post said of it:
"Full-speed ahead narrative, outsized characters, and a degree of intellectual seriousness not ordinarily associated with bestseller list fiction."
Perez-Reverte started his career as a war correspondent (from 1973-94) and began writing novels in the late 1980s. He writes two distinct types of books, both of which I enjoy, although many people have distinct preferences for one or the other.
The Captain Alatriste books, now grown to seven titles, are a series of historical novels set in early 17th century Spain. The Captain is a man of honour in a decaying society watching as Spain declines from its height of power in the 16th century. Perez-Reverte supplies a good dose of action (Alatriste is a master swordsman) as well as pulling you into the cultural milieu of Royal Spain The novels are clearly inspired by The Three Musketeers (what else would you expect of someone who writes The Club Dumas?) The books are in chronological order so it is best to start with the first one, Captain Alatriste. The others that are available in English are:
Purity Of Blood
The Sun Over Breda
The King's Gold
The Man In The Yellow Doublet
In his other books, Perez-Reverte writes straight narrative fiction without continuity of characters between the novels. His first four books all have strong plot elements related to puzzle solving:
The Fencing Master is set in the Madrid of 1866, as another revolution nears. The Fencing Master is one of the last true devotees of swordsmanship in a world rapidly turning to guns when he is approached by a mysterious woman who wants training in his unique technique.
The Flanders Panel, although set in current times, is about an art restorer working on a 15th century Flemish painting who finds a puzzling message underneath the layers of paint which provokes her to try to solve a mystery hundreds of years old, triggering death in the world around her today.
The Club Dumas is a wild tale set in Madrid, Lisbon and Paris. Rare-book hunters, antiquarian booksellers, a little murder, and the haunting possibility that the modern-day players may be characters in The Three Musketeers makes for an entertaining frolic.
The Seville Communion. A hacker sends a message to the Pope's computer pleading to save a little 16th century church in Seville. A papal investigator is sent and encounters mysterious priests and women. Mayhem follows.
His three most recent novels, including The Queen Of The South, are less puzzle driven. The Nautical Chart is almost as good as Queen. It's the tale of a suspended sailor and the lovely, and perhaps not completely trustworthy, Tanger Soto, a museum curator, who find a 17th century chart which may hold the clue to a long-sought treasure ship sunk off the Spanish coast and their efforts to hold off a gang of criminals looking for the same boat. Reminds one of The Maltese Falcon, doesn't it? Who's gonna take the fall at the end?
His most recent non-Alatriste book in English is The Painter Of Battles, a small, somber and thought-provoking novel clearly inspired by his coverage of the war in the former Yugoslavia (a subject he reportedly refuses to talk about). The main character is a former war photojournalist and it's a meditation, in the form of a story that spills out in fragments over the course of the book, on whether he was really neutral observer or instead an agent of influence, however indirect, on the events of the war and whether there is a price he must pay if the latter.