Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Review: The Flanders Panel

Written by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 295 pages
Winter Reading Challenge 2008

"Life is an uncertain adventure in a diffuse landscape, whose borders are continually shifting, where all frontiers are artificial, where at any moment everything can either end only to begin again or finish suddenly, for ever and ever, like an unexpected blow from an axe. Where the only absolute, coherent, indisputable and definitive reality is death. Where we are only a tiny lightning flash between two eternal nights, and where . . . we have very little time." [Chapter XV: "Queen Ending," p. 269]

Julia, a 20-something art expert in Madrid, is hired to restore a painting about to be auctioned off by Claymore's, a prominent auction house. The Game of Chess, by fifteenth-century Flemish master Pieter Van Huys, depicts the Duke of Ostenburg and one of his knights seated at a chess board, engaged in a game, while in the background a lady in a black velvet dress sits reading by a window.

When she has the painting X-rayed before cleaning, Julia discovers a hidden message in a corner of the work, presumably written and then deliberately painted over by the artist himself. The message is written in Latin: "Quis Necavit Equitem" ("Who Killed the Knight?"), and Julia's obsession with finding out more about the inscription, the picture and the historical events surrounding its creation are the basis of Arturo Perez-Reverte's sophisticated mystery novel, The Flanders Panel.

As she turns up more information about the painting and the characters involved, Julia begins to realize she's uncovered a Renaissance murder mystery that seems to have ramifications in the present century. But even as violence and danger begin to erupt, her fascination with the painting and its story increases until it threatens her own life and the lives of her friends and loved ones.

As the book's advertising claims, The Flanders Panel is truly a "mystery for the connoisseur." The writing is sophisticated and elegant, the plot twists and turns, and the story shifts easily back and forth among many attractive (and yet somehow sinister) settings – auction houses and museums, antique shops and chess clubs, nightclubs and the streets of Madrid. The chess motif is well-researched, and runs through the whole book, but readers who know little about chess (and I'm one) can still enjoy the story.

Images of Alice and her looking-glass are sprinkled through the book – another heroine caught up in a story based on a game of chess. The author throws in several paradoxes and puzzles along the way, and many references to Edgar Allan Poe and Dupin, and to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, I suppose to emphasize the fact that the story is a mystery. And there are surprises (almost literally) around every corner.

This is the second Perez-Reverte novel I've read – the first was The Club Dumas; and I don't think "Flanders" quite comes up to that level. Still, it kept me turning pages into the wee hours, several nights running, and whetted my appetite for more of his work - and I consider that a pretty good recommendation.

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