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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.