I picked up this book expecting another one of Perez-Reverte’s mindbending semi-mysteries. He’s the one who wrote a fiction book about chess that I not only read, I actually enjoyed. I’m not terribly familiar with his entire oeuvre so it’s possible that more of his books are like this ones, just not the ones I’ve read. Queen of the North is very much a book about place. It follows a poor Mexican girl from a barrio filled with drug dealers, whores and other ne’er do wells. She goes from being the girlfriend of a dealer, to being on the run when he is killed for double-crossing one of the narcos, to setting herself up in Spain, eventually as something of a drug-runner herself.
The writer is telling two stories at once, that of Teresa, the protagonist, and also one of an unnmaed narrator who is trying to write a book about her life and going through the tortuous process of extracting information about the drug underworld from people who know her. Part of the book is in the present tense, and part is leading up to the present tense. So, it tells two stories: her life is outlined, but also her web of connections, people who she helped, people who she harmed, people who she made deals with and people who she severed contact with. All along we are told that she is not particularly attractive or particularly brilliant, but she has a “head for numbers” that makes her good at what she does, and a meticulousness that works to her advantage. She’s not a superhero, she’s just got a lot of integrity and a nose for staying out of trouble. There are sub-themes of independence, love and heroism -- figuring out who is to be trusted, who is to be used, and who is to be avoided. And, of course, there’s the shifting sands of the drug underworld, watching peoepl come and go, watching deals be made and brokenn, watching people make and break allegiances. It’s a messy and dangerous business, and watching a male character go through all this would be like seeing every other Hollywood movie about Columbian druglords, but through the eyes of a woman you get just a slightly different take on a situation you know well. That, combined with Perez-Reverte’s skillful command of language and character makes this book worthwhile and engrossing.