The Flanders panel

by Arturo Přez-Reverte

Paper Book, 1996




New York : Bantam Books, 1996


A fifteenth-century painting by a Flemish master is about to be auctioned when Julia, a young art restorer, discovers a peculiar inscription hidden in a corner: Who killed the knight? In the painting, the Duke of Flanders and his knight are locked in a game of chess, and a dark lady lurks mysteriously in the background. Julia is determined to solve the five-hundred-year-old murder, but as she begins to look for clues, several of her friends in the art world are brutally murdered in quick succession. Messages left with the bodies suggest a crucial connection between the chess game in the painting, the knight's murder, the sordid underside of the contemporary art world, and the latest deaths. Just when all of the players in the mystery seem to be pawns themselves, events race toward a shocking conclusion. A thriller like no other, The Flanders Panel presents a tantalizing puzzle for any connoisseur of mystery, chess, art, and history.  … (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member xicanti
Julia, a restoration specialist, uncovers a centuries-old mystery in a painting she's been hired to prepare for auction.

This is marketed as "a novel of suspense."

Suspense. Meaning it should've been, you know, suspenseful.

It wasn't. In fact, it was supremely unsuspenseful.

In Perez-Reverte's defense, I'm sure hardcore chess players would find this pretty compelling. I'm a softcore chess player. I know the basic moves, but I'm not familiar with the theory and all the fancy-dancy stuff. I just kind of nodded along whenever Julia's pet chess player trotted out some shocking revelation about an unconventional move the killer had used.

On top of that, I guessed the culprit straight off the bat. I read a lot of stories, my friends; I know all the conventions. I know just who's most likely to have done it and why. Is this Perez-Reverte's fault? No, not exactly, but I was rather disappointed that he fell back on convention here. I was hoping for a bigger twist.

(To be fair, it would've been a shocking twist in, say, 1923. Unfortunately, it's 2009).

Perhaps I'd feel differently if the characters had come alive for me. If I'd loved these characters, I have no doubt that I'd have hoped against hope that the mystery would play out in some other way. I'd have refused to believe what my spidey sense was telling me; I'd have fought against the conventions with my last breath. But unfortunately Julia, Cesar, Menchu, Munoz and Max were just words on the page. I was never afraid for them.

And then there's the Big Reveal.

I put a lot of stock in the Big Reveal. I want to see my suspicions confirmed or denied, but I also want to be surprised. I like it to be reasonably brief, too. A quick flash of insight is best; the sort of revelation that causes everything else to click into place. Ten to twenty pages is also acceptable, provided the revelations come fast and tight. Thirty pages is pushing it, unless your protagonist is Hercule Poirot and he's about to delight the hell out of me. Fifty is completely unacceptable.

Perez-Reverte takes nearly fifty pages, and he told me little I didn't already know. What's more, I found some of the content so homophobic that I was embarrassed to be reading it. Munoz makes a lot of generalizations about Cesar, Julia's guardian. Really, really offensive generalizations, from where I stand. I mean, hell, maybe they're true of Cesar, but Perez-Reverte presents them as though they're true of all LGBT folks. This didn't sit right with me.

Prior to that, I was willing to give the book a solid 3 stars. The book is not without its good points. The chess stuff didn't do a whole lot for me, but I can see how it would've been pretty impressive if I were a hardcore chess addict. The writing was elegant, too, and I loved all the art historical stuff and the literary references. And, when push comes to shove, I'm a total sucker for a good historical conundrum, which this is. But the homophobia, paired with the total lack of suspense, was enough to bump my rating down. I can't recommend this.

(A slightly different version of this review originally appeared on my blog, Stella Matutina).
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LibraryThing member syong
I stopped reading halfway through. Nothing seems to be happening but the author/translator is taking many pages to descibe it. Very "slow" writing. The writing is too wordy/flowery and not in a good way. The author/translator moves the story along with revelations that the characters in the book talk about as ingenious or brilliant, but they seemed obvious and unimportant.… (more)
LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
I got this book after being impressed by the Club Dumas, expecting a similarly great novel. I wasn't disappointed, having finished it, as I was not expecting it to be quite as good, but it was in its own way a comparable novel. The story was good, and had me guessing, I thought I'd worked out the villain at one point, but in the end there was a brilliant twist, and it turned out to be someone else. The author is obviously a big fan of Godel Escher Bach, as anyone who has read both books will realise, once they have reached a certain stage in this book, and the author does himself credit with some of the interesting uses he makes of the clever ideas in that book. Although chess does play an important part of the story, it would be possible for someone with no interest in it to get a similar amount out of the book as a keen player, I would imagine. Here the occurrences in the chess game are carried out in real life, in a similar way that in the Club Dumas some of the situations in Dumas' stories are mirrored by the situations the protagonists find them selves in. I would recommend this book to those who like a good intelligent mystery, with a bit more to it than the standard crime novel, though it is not on a parallel with anything like Foucalt's Pendulum, but is more accessible if nothing else as a result. The author, as mentioned by other reviewers, has a preoccupation with smoking, with the characters lighting up cigarettes at every opportunity, which fans of the Club Dumas will notice is preoccupation spread across his fiction. It gave me the odd urge to seek out something to smoke, even though I am not in the habit of doing. I will probably look for some more Perez-Reverte to read when I have worked through some of the other books on my to-read list.… (more)
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Julia, a young but highly respected art restorer, has been hired by her friend Menchu to restore a 15th century Flemish panel, The Game of Chess, which will be sold at auction in a few weeks. Using X-ray photography, Julia has discovered a hidden Latin inscription on the painting: who killed the knight? What does it mean? Does it refer to the knight in the painting, or to a knight in the chess game depicted in the painting? Julia needs to know more about the painting's history and the three people in the scene. She enlists the help of her friend and father figure César, her ex-lover Álvaro, and an enigmatic chess master, Muñoz. Julia's quest to solve a 500-year-old murder sets off a fresh chain of murders. Will Julia uncover the painting's mysteries in time to save her own life?

The author tried to do too much in a fairly short book. I was fascinated by the art history, the painting's Renaissance setting, and the intricacies and layers of the chess game depicted in the painting. The added twist of Freudian psychoanalysis was too much. The suspense built through the clues in the chess game, the modern murders, and Julia's near escapes is wasted by the lengthy explanation required to tie all of the plot elements together. The idea is better than its execution. I also had a hard time accepting Julia as one of the best art restorers in the field. Wouldn't an expert know better than to chain smoke in front of a valuable painting she's supposed to be restoring?
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LibraryThing member Dejah_Thoris
While preparing a 15th century painting for auction, Julia, an art restorer, discovers a hidden message: who killed the knight? Caught up in solving the historical mystery, Julia finds herself in modern one; someone is murdering people connected with her and the artwork. The question then becomes who and why would someone kill over a 400 year old painting?

Thirty pages into this book I thought I’d struck gold in my TBR mountain. A third of the way through the book I realized that it was going to be good at best. By the time I was two thirds finished, I was ready to quit reading and would have if the book hadn’t been relatively short.

I was captivated by the historical mystery. Unfortunately, it was solved fairly quickly. For a book billed as a novel of suspense, there was little suspense and even fewer thrills to be had. What’s more, Perez-Reverte seemed to be indifferent about some of his characters and actively disliked the rest. He certainly showed no compassion for their foibles and was vicious in some of his descriptions. I wasn’t bothered by the extensive use of chess as the key to the mystery solving, but perhaps I would have been more engaged if I were a more expert player.

I can’t recommend this book; I honestly don’t understand how it came to be a bestseller anywhere.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
A murder mystery wrapped around a 15th century painting. A chess game in the painting is the central piece of this book. The text is fairly well written, but at times seems to drag as the author exposes feelings, connections, art, etc. Any mystery that takes 25 pages AFTER the murderer is discovered to let the villain describe what it was all about is a bit windy!… (more)
LibraryThing member Larxol
I didn't enjoy this book as much as several of Perez-Reverte's others. The intertwining of the chess game with the plot is a clever conceit, but in the end I found the clunky exposition needed to bring along the non-chess-playing readers got in the way of the story-telling.
LibraryThing member lortigosa
Great book, I like this kind of books, but being from Spain still shocks me to see the guy who used to read the news on TV turned into a (good) writer.
LibraryThing member LisaLynne
I enjoyed this as I enjoy all Arturo Perez-Reverte books - immensely, right up until the end. In the past, the big reveal has occasionally been a big let-down, but this was not bad at all. The story is fascinating - Julia, an art restorer, finds a hidden inscription under the paint of an old Flemish painting - "Who killed the knight?" This launches her into a modern-day mystery, where people associated with the painting and her investigation of it start turning up dead.

The painting is of a chess game and I honestly think I would have gotten more out of the book if I had any interest in chess or knowledge of the game. The way that certain motivations and intentions are assigned to certain chess moves was a bit beyond me. Still, Perez-Reverte aloways manages to create fascinating characters who seem like no one I know in real life. A pleasure to peek into their world.
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LibraryThing member Autodafe
A quick read. The fast pace of the story is incredible.
LibraryThing member pnielsen12
I loved the story. It had mystery, murder -- a who-dun-it ! I particulary enjoyed that while attempting to solve a mystery from the past, the characters have to unravel one that is happening around them now.
LibraryThing member pw0327
I started reading Perez-Reverte with the Seville Communion and then followed up wi the rest of the translations. I am not sure which is my favorite, The Flanders Panel or The Club Dumas. Both have a lot to recommend, not the least of which is the mystery itself.

I find that I learn something with every novel, whether it is chess in this particular book or fencing or literature and antiquarian books. I am entertained by the book's plot, its premise, its character development or the style with which the story is told. On top of all that I get a wee lesson in an arcane discipline, what more can one want.

The character development is very good, the best part is that the author does not rely on cute devices to get himself out of jams that he has written himself into. Are you listening John Grisham?

I won't reveal too much of the plot, except to say that the duality problem presented by the painting and the duality presented in the novel itself was simply exquisite, a very neat and tidy way to unscramble the mystery, a way that is very satisfying to the rational mind.

I have enjoyed these books very much and I will continue to await more translations from Spain.
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LibraryThing member wowcaipora
While the concept of the book was intriguing, this novel was a bit tedious to read. Less than an amateur at chess, I found it necessary to study the provided chessboard diagrams for several minutes each time they were presented. In addition to the time spent examining the graphics in the book, several hours were spent trudging through the prose. I was unable to relax and truly enjoy the experience; the style was much more formal than books I'd choose of my own volition and the characters seemed very stiff. (I can't say for sure how much of this was due to the writer's style and how much due to the translator.) I kept waiting to see some sort of intimacy between Julia and Muñoz, but instead was limited to the star-crossed lovers of the painting. I was impressed by Perez-Reverte's knowledge of art restoration techniques as well as his obvious chess know-how; however, I was not altogether pleased with his depiction of César or the other supporting characters. I fear that the author is more cultured than I claim to be - I find it hard to relate to the high-class Spaniards depicted on the pages. Still, I find myself looking back on the bittersweet end to the novel and the intricacies of the piece and admire Señor Perez-Reverte for his complex literary weaving.… (more)
LibraryThing member rizeandshine
The book started off well and I had high hopes, but somehow it fell flat somewhere in the middle. The plot is convoluted and contrived. Also, the more you appreciate chess the more you will probably enjoy the plot as the author spends page after page describing in great detail all the possible moves that take place during a game of chess.… (more)
LibraryThing member seitherin
I thoroughly enjoyed this book even though I knew who killed the knight before the answer was revealed in the book and I surmised who had committed the murders long before the big reveal. For me, this book was not about who did it but why it was done and how the answers were discovered.
LibraryThing member eidolons
I have, for the most part, enjoyed every book I've read thus far by Arturo Perez-Reverte. That being said, I'm not sure I liked this one very much. I guess that I should have looked at it more carefully instead of buying it because of the author. This book is a mystery novel. I'm not a fan of classic mystery novels. The story leading up to the big confessions. Clues doled out and then the long monologue by the detective or guilty party. It's just not my thing.

Here's the premise: Julia restores artwork. She's working on a painting called The Game of Chess. There is a mystery about the people in the painting which transforms into a modern-day murder-mystery involving people she knows. Aided by her adopted father-figure Cesar and a chess player Munoz, Julia works to puzzle things out.

I liked the chess and the style of writing. Munoz was an interesting character, though I always felt that he could have been developed a little more. The chess game governing the direction of the mystery reminded me a little of Katherine Neville's books The Eight and it's sequel The Fire.

If you like mystery novels and can wrap your brain around chess moves, you'll love this book. It's a fairly quick read and definitely keeps you guessing.
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LibraryThing member jsoos
A fairly quick read, the novel is set in Madrid, where Julia, a young art restorer, uncovers hidden text under a 15th century Felish painting, "the Game of Chess". It evolves into a murder-mystery all cetnered around the painting and chess. Enjoyable read - although I think the characters could have used additional development. Ending was a bit anti-climatic (conclusion reached 30-40 pages before the end) and drawn out.… (more)
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
This is quite possibly my favorite of Perez-Reverte's books, because like The Nautical Chart and The Club Dumas, it is my favorite type of book...things happen in the past and link to the present.

Who killed the knight? is the central question of this novel...and who is killing everyone involved in this mystery is the meat of this story. The answer will surprise you. Be patient...this is at times a difficult read, but well worth it.

Extremely well written; I was hooked from the first page.
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LibraryThing member cfk
Julia, an art restorer,discovered a hidden inscription beneath layers of paint and lacquer while working on a 15th Century painting--The Game of Chess. Part of her job is to uncover the back history of the painting, including information about the individuals in the painting.

This book, like the painting itself, functions on multiple levels while introducing knowledge, subterfuge, murder and fear into the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was both surprised and satisfied by the conclusion. I will seek out more books by this author.… (more)
LibraryThing member thorold
A disappointment when you read it back-to-back with Club Dumas, unfortunately. The chess-based plot is interesting, and occasionally quite subtle, but rather less is made of the historical back-story than I would have liked. The biggest problem, though, is that the three central characters are very flat. Julia comes over like the "clever woman" in a Hollywood film (you keep expecting her to take off her glasses...); César is a dreadful homophobic caricature presented without a hint of irony, and Muñoz is so bland as to be practically transparent.

Club Dumas succeeds because it refuses to take itself seriously, but in this earlier work P-R doesn't quite have the confidence to laugh at the clichés of the genre. His characters endlessly cross their legs, hitch up their skirts, pour drinks and smoke innumerable cigarettes, while the reader inwardly screams "get on with it!"
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This book is so much more than a murder mystery. There are layers within layers. On the surface it appears to be about art restorer, Julia, and her commission to restore a painting by a Flemish master in the 1500's. The painting depicts two men sitting at a chess game and a woman by a window reading a book. Julia discovers, through the use of X-rays, that there is a hidden Latin inscription which, when translated, means "Who has killed the knight?". In her attempt to solve this puzzle Julia enlists the assistance of her guardian, Cesar, and her ex-lover. Cesar suggests seeking out a chess expert. The stratagem of having a chess board mimic a battlefield is not new but the device is given new depths in this book. Not a book to be read quickly and I thought a chess board at hand would have helped me visualize the game. The ending is just as fascinating as the rest of the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This is the first of Arturo Perez-Reverte's books that I read and it was a great beginning. At the center of this novel is Julia, an art restorer who discovers a strange inscription on a Flemish painting and becomes drawn into a solving the mystery that is poses. The milieu of museum curators and experts and auctioneers provides a convincing setting; the historical background is informative and entertaining. It was well-researched and suspenseful and my enjoyment of it led me to seek out other books by this author.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
A very decent one from Perez-Reverte.
LibraryThing member isabelx
She busied herself preparing a vodka-on-the-rocks and suddenly smiled in the dark as she stood in front of the Van Huys. She had the odd feeling that if anything bad was going to happen, it would happen to someone else. Nothing bad ever happened to the hero, she remembered as she drank her vodka and felt the ice clink against her teeth. Only other people died, secondary characters, like Alvaro.

While restoring a 15th-century painting called The Game of Chess, restoration expert Julia discovers a hidden inscription which seems to have been painted over by the original artist. She enlists the help of antiquarian César and chess-player Muñoz in tracking down the solution to a 500-year-old murder mystery., but their quest leads them into danger, as they soon realise that someone else is interested in the painting and in playing the game to its conclusion. All the squares, my dear, are grey, tinged by the awareness of Evil that we all acquire with experience, an awareness of how sterile and often abjectly unjust what we call Good can turn out to be.

They discover unexpected connections between the characters in the painting, their reflections in the painted mirror, the game they are playing, the history of the real people who were depicted in the painting, and the lives of the modern-day people investigating the riddle posed by the painting, and the book is full of references to mirrors and art and how both can give the viewer a different perspective on a scene.

Unfortunately I did not find any of the main characters sympathetic at all and was not really concerned whether any of them would survive to the end of the story. Julia was cold and vain, always admiring herself in a Venetian mirror that she had been told made her look like a Renaissance beauty, and although I think the reader is meant to like César more than Menchu, they are quite similar characters, one a homosexual male and and other a heterosexual female but both are arch, artistic, middle-aged and serial seducers of beautiful young men. I am also not keen on the way that descriptions of the characters are constantly repeated throughout the book, with Muñoz's frayed collar being mentioned rather more than was necessary to make it clear that he didn't really fit into Julia's world. But as the story is seen from Julia's point of view, the constant harping on about frayed collars and too short skirts may be there to show how judgmental and dismissive Julia is about her friends and acquaintances.

Although I am not a chess-player myself (having really bad spatial perception which prevents me from holding a picture of the board in my mind and moving the pieces mentally), and I didn't warm to the main characters, the mystery kept me interested throughout.… (more)
LibraryThing member jawalter
Read as a trashy mystery novel, there's really nothing objectionable about this, although for some reason, I was really expecting more. Especially galling was the villain, complete with a needlessly complicated, and mostly pointless, plan that seems to exist only so that the novel might exist. When the villain finally gives an explanatory monologue at the end, the rationale is, quite frankly, kind of offensive (and it feels unintentionally so).

The chess and historical subplots ended up seeming rather superficial. The chess, especially, seemed far too elementary to hang much of a plot on, while simultaneously being treated with far too much reverence and symbolic import by the characters.
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