Perez-Reverte's literary thriller explodes with history, heart-break, determination, and narcocorridos, the Mexican ballads that pay homage to infamous outlaws. Set amid the drug-running culture of Spain, Morocco, and Culiacán, Mexico, where ''dying violently was dying a natural death,'' the saga concerns the rise of world-class smuggler Teresa Mendoza. When the story opens in Culiacán, Mendoza is a drug runner's moll, languorously shaving her legs in the tub. Then comes the cell-phone call that changes her life: Her boyfriend, pilot Guero (gringo) Dávila, has been murdered -- and she's next. But Queen of the South is no cheesy melodrama exploiting its criminal setting for street cred. The audacious author of ''The Club Dumas'' has written an epic suspense story of heart and grit. Superbly translated by Andrew Hurley, the prose is as rich and dense as a flourless chocolate cake.