Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Flanders Panel

As previously mentioned, I'm into chess right now. I decided to give Arturo Perez-Reverte another try, after reading The Club Dumas about a million years ago and enjoying it enough. He's a prolific writer, and not even all of his works have been translated. But is this novel any good?

Julia is a professional restorer of paintings. When she is entrusted with a medieval painting depicting a chess game, she uncovers a hidden message underneath the paint asking who killed the knight? So begins a mystery involving Flemish painting, art dealers, chess, and a deadly game of murder.

This book is exceedingly clever. Almost too clever. The game of chess at the novel's heart is complex and varied, with very specific patterns of movement, and the novel's action seems to follow the game, as the murderer's scheme. Perez-Reverte obviously researched the hell out of chess and medieval art in order to write this, and it shows. I'm not an expert in chess, but I've been studying enough to know that he devised a clever puzzle, but nothing a grandmaster couldn't solve in minutes.

As for the mystery? It has a nonsense ending, of course. There's no way any possible solution could live up to the expectations of an amazing setup like that. Even so, Perez-Reverte keeps the action moving, the plot brisk, the characters well drawn enough, and even in translation, some decent prose. It's a shame that the end is so trite.

As aforementioned, the novel is exceedingly clever. The ending is a complete, holistic one, like a locked-room ending. (For a modern example of this, see Seven, with its spectacular ending.) The problem with this style of ending is that I felt the author, while composing this denouement, was grinning like a madman, thinking he had come up with the perfect finish. As I said, it's nonsense, and detracts from the rest of the novel.

Other than this, The Flanders Panel is an enjoyable romp through art history, Spain, and chess. The plot keeps moving, the chess is fun enough, and the characters seem to have a little more depth than a Dan Brown. While I don't think I would ever re-read this novel, I would recommend it to people looking for a quick summer read slightly more complicated than the usual fare.

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