A popular Spanish sword-for-hire returns

Arturo Pérez-Reverte offers up the second in a swashbuckling series.

Few contemporary writers conjure up derring-do as well as Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a Spanish literary maestro who sits atop a newfound Iberian paperback empire evoking Dumas and his beloved d'Artagnan.

Last spring, Pérez-Reverte's revered series chronicling the escapades of a 17th-century sword-for-hire debuted in America with the English translation and publication of "Captain Alatriste." The title character, Diego Alatriste, is a stubborn, taciturn man with a pragmatic view of violence and political corruption. His inevitable scrapes invariably begin in minute focus and soon extend to the highest reaches of government, set against the backdrop of the perfidious Spanish Inquisition.

Alatriste, a former soldier known as a captain despite never having attained that rank, makes his money by taking on mercenary missions for clients of dubious character and motives. To the reader's eternal delight, Alatriste recognizes the Sisyphean pursuit inherent in his unusual business transactions, but trudges on nonetheless.

Pérez-Reverte sets his stories in the Madrid of the 1600s, a bustling capital of menacing alleyways, gambling dens, brothels, and grand churches. Discerning which of these locales has less sin or more salvation than another proves all but impossible.

Íñigo Balboa serves as the swordsman's Boswell, recounting Alatriste's duels with dual perspectives. The vantage points ricochet between young Íñigo, who witnesses Alatriste's swashbuckling events as an adolescent, and old Íñigo, who provides wry assessments ("The good don Miguel de Cervantes - the greatest genius of all time, no matter how those English heretics chirp on about their Shakespeare....")

Now comes Purity of Blood, published in the US for the first time in January and the second title in the Alatriste series. Publisher Putnam plans to release the three remaining Alatriste novels over a three-year span beginning in 2007; Pérez-Reverte promises to pen two more titles beyond the five he has already completed.

Alatriste's latest adventure begins with a seething father enlisting the swordsman in an attempt to save his daughter from a predatory priest taking liberties with her and other girls at a convent. It is the father's only hope, as he is hamstrung by the priest's threats to reveal the family's not-entirely-Christian background. Public disclosure could ruin the family. Deception and death loom, of course, but the true thrill lies in Pérez-Reverte's deft plotting and thread-the-needle resolutions.

As Alatriste battles Italian arch-nemesis Gualterio Malatesta, Pérez-Reverte provides characteristically stirring play-by-play: "They fought for an eternity. Both were exhausted, and the wound in the captain's hip gave him pain, but he was in better shape than Malatesta. It was only a question of time, and the Italian, wild with hatred, resolved to take his enemy with him as he died. It never crossed his mind to ask for mercy, and no one was going to offer it."

No mercy? Your Mercies, as Íñigo Balboa is fond of addressing readers, will appreciate the sentiment.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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