An erudite and gripping thriller, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel uses two arguably low-key elements (art restoration and chess) and turns them into the building blocks for an intelligent puzzle. I tore through my copy of this book in a couple of days until the reveal at the end, swept away by the descriptions of the Madrid art scene, the sharp dissection of chess gameplay and motivations, the reimagining of political intrigue in 15th Century Flanders.
The story begins with Julia, an art restorer tasked to refurbish a work by Flemish master Pietr Van Huys. The painting depicts three important figures within Flanders at the time, with two of them locked in an intense game of chess. While an important piece of art that could potentially generate millions in auction, there was nothing unusual about the painting until x-rays show a hidden message beneath it. Soon, an old lover of Julia’s dies mysteriously, and she can’t shake the certainty that the death is connected with the painting, somehow.
I took away a lot of things from this novel. My own fascination with the philosophical aspects of board games like chess and Go made me very receptive to the discussion of chess as metaphor for murder. The intricacies and jargon relating to chess is handled so deftly by Perez-Reverte that I never felt it was ever over my head. Julia’s character, though I found her quite distant at the beginning, combines both defiance and vulnerability as she’s beset by circumstances that are beyond her control.
The only thing that didn’t sit well with me is the scene where the identity of the villain is finally revealed. While the murderer’s motivations seem plausible in retrospect, I found the handling of the denoument overwrought and sloppy. I’ve found that I’m very seldom satisfied by the ending of mystery novels, despite my unabashed love for them.
A couple of years ago I came across an essay by China Mieville positing that the reason why the ending of mysteries always end up disappointing is because it is essentially a collapse of quantum possibilities. I’ve mulled over that idea for a long time, and I think it’s quite an apt description for my ambivalence with mystery endings.
The ultimate disappointment aside, I still found The Flanders Panel quite a whirl, and heartily recommend it to anyone who likes thrillers with a lot of bite and intelligence.