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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. New York: Bantam Books, 1994. ISBN: 0-553-37786-8

I suppose the proper term to describe this book would be "art thriller." The story revolves around a painting by a 15th century Dutch artist depicting a chess game between two courtiers, with a woman sitting in the background. The characters in the painting are known to be historical, and the younger man was assassinated a couple of years before the painting was painted.

The story's primary protagonist, a professional art restorer, discovers that there is an inscription hidden under layers of paint that reads (in Latin) "Who killed the knight?" In the context of the chess game the question could mean, "Who took the knight?" The implication, of course, is that it means both. And so the story revolves around the attempt to deduce who might have committed murder all those hundreds of years ago.

The first mode of attack is to obtain the services of a brilliant (but unknown) chess player to reconstruct the game backwards, to determine which piece, indeed, took the knight, and thereby, perhaps, discover who, in the artist's view at least, was responsible for the murder.

But then someone starts murdering people close to the case in the present. And at the same time, providing chess moves (neatly and nicely typed on note cards) that continue the game, leaving the chess expert to play the opposite side. The chess pieces begin to symbolize the real people in the story. Who will be killed next? Which chess piece is threatened in the game?

It makes for a very satisfying mystery played out on multiple levels of meaning. Chess enthusiasts will appreciate it, as will classic art buffs, but so will anyone who enjoys complex conundrums endowed with compound layers of significance.

My only complaint? A few gratuitous touches, such as making our protagonist a smoker (I find it hard to believe that someone would smoke in the same room where he or she is restoring a painting), and the deliberately smutty and sluttish character of Menchu, the greedy gallery owner and business associate of the our protagonist, the art restorer. And finally, and perhaps most seriously, the lack—in my opinion—of a sufficiently serious motive for the actual killer. All in all, though, a delightfully entertaining read.

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