The Flanders Panel
by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
“Chess is all about getting the king into check, you see. It's about killing the father. I would say that chess has more to do with the art of murder than it does with the art of war.” ― Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Flanders Panel
This was the first of Arturo Perez-Reverte's books that I read and it was a great beginning. While he is a popular author in Spain he was not as well known in the United States prior to the success of this novel. At the center of the story is Julia, an art restorer who discovers a strange inscription on a Flemish painting and becomes drawn into a solving the mystery that is poses. While restoring "The Game of Chess", a painting by the fifteenth century Flemish master Pieter Van Huys, she uncovers the hidden inscription: "Who killed the knight?" Intrigued, she goes to her ex-lover, art historian Alvaro, for background information. Alvaro dies soon afterward under suspicious circumstances.
To solve the mystery of Alvaro's death Julia must first unravel the enigma of the painting and the complicated relations of the lives of the people depicted in the painting. The narrative effectively covers her struggles with this mystery as Spanish author Perez-Reverte analyzes the painting in great detail. Many questions are raised in this process. What were the chess moves that led to the position depicted in the painting? How will the game play out? The murderer taunts her by dropping notes to Julia, and each new move is reflected in threatening events around her. I was held in suspense as the narrative kept me oriented with diagrams of the board as positions changed and pieces were taken. There is the challenge of the chess problem as well as the murder mystery.
The milieu of museum curators and experts and auctioneers provides a convincing setting; the historical background is informative and entertaining. There is a marvelous intertwining of symbol with reality that makes The Flanders Panel a unique and intelligent mystery. It creates a sense of mystery that evokes John Fowles' The Magus or Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 from my reading memory. It was well-researched and suspenseful and my enjoyment of it led me to seek out other books by this author, among which I would recommend The Club Dumas.
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