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The Flanders Panel Paperback – May 1, 1996
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Julia, a young Madrid art restorer, is pulled into a shadowy world of metaphor when she discovers a long-covered inscription on a Flemish painting: Who killed the knight? Art, chess and murder are intertwined in this elegant, seductive mystery in the manner of The Name of the Rose.
From Publishers Weekly
When an art restorer sets out to solve the riddle of a 15th-century masterpiece in this uneven but intriguing, multilayered thriller, she finds that one murder begets another, down through five centuries. Young, beautiful art expert Julia works in Madrid for the Prado as well as for various local galleries and auctioneers. Her painstaking cleaning of The Game of Chess , by Flemish master Pieter Van Huys, uncovers a Latin inscription--painted over by the artist--with the question "Who killed the knight?" Julia explores this mystery with the aid of Cesar, a middle-aged, homosexual antiques dealer who has become something of a surrogate father figure for her; Alvaro, her art professor ex-lover; and Munoz, a mildly antisocial chess master. When Alvaro dies--possibly murdered--Van Huys's riddle becomes relevant not only to the figures and chess pieces represented in his painting but also to Julia and her friends in this rather seamy art community. The author, a TV journalist in Spain, makes interesting use of the chessboard as metaphor for various human interactions, and his characters' sleuthy analysis of the painting's symbols and the details of its frozen chess game is clever and quite suspenseful. But the characters themselves are carelessly drawn cartoons--perhaps distorted in translation--and prone to rather sophomoric pronouncements on aesthetic and philosophical issues. And--highbrow pretensions aside--the whodunit aspect of the narrative is resolved unconvincingly, with disappointing conventionality. Film rights to Filmania.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Overall, this is a great mystery/murder novel and would recommend this to anyone who wants a good book.
This one starts out with a rather intriguing premise, an art restorer finds a hidden inscription concealed under a layer of paint on a late medieval painting she has been commissioned to spruce up. "Who killed the knight?" the inscription reads in Latin.
The painting, of two men playing a game of chess with an enigmatic young woman, dressed in black sitting demurely if mysteriously in the background, shows the older man with a chess piece in his hand (the white knight) and the younger player brooding over the board. As Julia, the art restorer, muses, the term "killed" in the inscription could also be read as "took," as in "who took the knight?" in the course of the game. But a little investigation soon reveals to Julia that one of the players had actually been assassinated before the painting was painted and the game is soon afoot.
As Julia scrambles to understand the implications of the inscription, in hopes that its story will enhance the value of the painting for the art broker who commissioned her, bloody murder suddenly rears its head and soon Julia is drawn into a vortex of fear and suspicion as she and some friends (one old, one new) scramble to unpack the mystery of the centuries old murder which, Julia is convinced, will reveal the perpetrator of the contemporary murder.
To do so it's not only necessary for Julia and her companions to research the history of the painting, they must find a way to play out the chess game depicted on the painted panel from Flanders itself for, as they soon realize, the murderer knows their every move and is playing along with them -- and the murders (for the first one is not the last) may be finally explicable in the way the game is played out.
The first half of the book is fairly tight though, as others have noted here, the characters are not well developed and, in fact, are fairly stereotypical, though Perez-Reverte does manage to give them vitality if not genuine depth. Julia, herself, seems oddly passive and naive for someone as worldly as she is supposed to be.
But the greatest flaw of this book lies in the mystery. Aside from the strain to credulity it takes to think a centuries old mystery, with no obvious connections to the modern characters in the story, has implications for the current murder and mayhem, it is even stranger to suggest that a game of chess, played out in the abstract, has a bearing on what is going on among people with little or no reason to know what moves are being made.
The idea, of course, is that the killer is using the game (first played backward and then forward) to tell those who are trying to decipher the point of the inscription just who will be killed next. But why? There ought to be a very strong reason for this, or why should the killer go to such lengths?
The great weakness of the book lies precisely in this conundrum for there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the killings themselves, no intrinsic connection to the painting and thus it becomes apparent way too soon just who the killer must be. I shall say no more of this for fear of giving the story away except to note that by the first third of the book the killer's identity becomes fairly obvious and it is a wonder those who are most engaged in the "chase" apparently fail to see it until much later. Moreover, the killer's motivation, when finally revealed, seems rather odd, to say the least -- not inexplicable but an awful lot of trouble to go to in order to accomplish what, in the end, is a more or less prosaic goal.
Perez-Reverte, in my view, has done much better elsewhere (The Fencing Master is my favorite). While this one kept me reading diligently for about the first half, I only managed to finish it out of a sense of literary duty. By the time of the denouement, my only question was how the author would manage to explain it all and, alas, I think he didn't quite do so. He ended with an artfully philosophical flourish but I didn't have the feeling I'd been through any kind of adventure at all and the chess game, which had fascinated me for much of the story, seemed a tiresome device on which to hang the murders by the end. It was hard to care much about those killed or those in danger or those engaged in the ferreting out of the mysterious killer.
Still, Perez-Reverte always exhibits a certain intellectual elegance and erudition when he writes and is enjoyable for that. This was better than The Nautical Chart and, certainly, superior to his third Alatriste novel. I'll probably continue to read him but I do find myself wondering at his popularity in Europe and in some quarters in the U.S. after reading this one. I have to wonder, too, if the appearance of erudition is not often as important to some as the real thing.
author of The King of Vinland's Saga