How’s this for the opening line of a novel: “The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die.” Come on, admit it, you wish you had opened a novel that way. I wish I’d written that line as an opening. But Arturo Perez-Reverte wrote it to open his novel The Queen of the South. It’s a pretty good hook line, the kind of line that will buy you at least a few pages from the reader. But only a few. You have to sink that hook deeper and start reeling in the line—get the reader committed to reading the rest of the story. In other words, sometime soon, you had better be offering either some scintillating action (for one kind of reader) or some luscious prose (for another kind of reader).
Maybe one of the reasons that Perez-Reverte’s novels have sold millions of copies in a bunch of languages is that, maybe for a third kind of reader, he does both—after hooking the reader immediately, offering action and style. That third kind of reader wants to be wooed by the language, made love to by the sounds of the words and the beauty of the imagery and the surprise of really interesting characters, but also enjoys the thrill of the mystery.
Perez-Reverte is known as a writer of “intellectual mysteries,” set in specialized worlds such as art restoration, chess, or fencing. The narrator of The Queen of the South is an ex-journalist who has become a novelist, whose latest work, which is biographical, is set in the world of international narcotics smuggling.
Honestly, I’m much more interested in the specialized worlds of art restoration, chess, and fencing than I am the world of international narcotics smuggling, and so this novel has to sell me. Here’s a sentence from page five that helped set the hook for me: “Then she turned toward the rain that was pattering against the windows, and I don’t know whether it was something in the gray light from outside or an absentminded smile, but whatever it was, it left a strange, cruel shadow on her lips.” Okay, I want to know more about that woman. The hook is set and Perez-Reverte is reeling me in. In fact, “that woman” is the biographical focus of the narrator. But Arturo Perez-Reverte has long ago convinced me, in three of his other novels, that he will deliver a literary, intellectual mystery, and that I will love it. So I guess I’ll go with him on this one too.