I’ve been searching for a good literary mystery. That rules out at least 75% of the books in the Mystery section which is stuffed with thrillers, true crime, and bad things happening to small children. I’ve been looking for a mystery that is…well… clever. And maybe old fashioned. Maybe something along the lines of the Da Vinci Code – if it had been better written with less contrived puzzles and a plot that didn’t pander to the masses’ macabre fascination with religious taboos (ahem, stepping off the soapbox now). In short, I want a mystery that’s intelligent – rather than one that lets me feel intelligent. Arturo Perez-Reverte snuck up on me.
I purchased The Club Dumas while on vacation and never read it. The fact is, I couldn’t bring myself to do it once I realized that it was the basis of that tragically bad Polanski movie with Johnny Depp. (It seems that there is an entire shelf of unfortunate movies based on Perez-Reverte’s books… who would have guessed? I encourage you to look them all up on imdb – yes, it will be on the test). Fortunately, the inside cover and back pages advertised his other novels. I was intrigued by Captain Alatriste, a sword for hire in 17th Century Spain. I bought the first book of that series, appropriately named Captain Alatriste and also picked up The Flanders Panel on a whim.
So, at this point I owned three Perez-Reverte books, in case anyone is keeping track. I read The Flanders Panel first.
Arturo Perez-Reverte lives in Spain, so not surprisingly all of his books were originally published in Spanish. This Flanders Panel is set in Madrid, specifically in the center of the Madrid art world. Julia, the heroine, has been commissioned to restore a painting by a Flemish master, – two men playing chess, a woman reading in the background. She discovers the words “Who killed the knight?” beneath layers of paint. All the clues needed to answer that question and solve a 500 year old murder are contained within the painting. But while attempting to find the solution Julia and her friends find themselves stalked by a killer whose victims are all somehow linked with the painting and, ultimately, with Julia.
The Flanders Panel has all the right components for the genre – a 15th Century painting holding the clue to a murder, a heroine who is an art restorer, a cast of supporting characters well realized and each interesting in their own right. And, at the very center of it all, chess. Not just the game of chess, but a particular chess game, which is the crux of both the novel’s historical and modern day mysteries. And Perez-Reverte writes in such a way that reading about chess is as interesting and exciting as the mystery itself. He writes in a way that not only makes you want to play the game, but makes you want to study it and to play it well. (He is so compelling that after finishing the book I went out and bought a book on opening chess moves, tried chess online, and endured repeated humiliation at the hands of what I believe to be a series of high school chess prodigies. Thanks Arturo).
Be warned: The Flanders Panel carries with it the inherent flaw of most mysteries – plausibility. I.E. – the plot needs to be carefully constructed so that at the end when all the pieces fall into place, ultimately leaving Colonel Mustard in the billiards room with the lead pipe, it is plausible. If the author does this well, which Perez-Reverte does, then the revelation of Colonel Mustard’s guilt is anticlimactic. But that’s not really the point of reading a mystery. Sticking with my metaphor, the fun isn’t taking those cards out of the envelope… the fun is in the game play. Perez-Reverte sets up a wonderful game. And if the ending, particularly the denouement, is a little disappointing – it doesn’t take away from everything preceding it. It even allows the (albeit faint) hope that we will see these characters again.
The other Perez-Reverte books on my bedside table are not all translated by the same person as The Flanders Panel. Normally, I wouldn’t comment – but I noticed the difference in the writing. It takes a bit of getting used to, especially after enjoying the first book so much. But that’s the price of failing high school Spanish. Still, never one to fall back in the face of adversity I’ve begun Captain Alatriste and purchased The Nautical Chart. I’m even considering giving The Club Dumas another chance (after discovering that the movie was only loosely based on the novel). Best of all, according to my list there are at least six other books to keep me busy after that…and my new friend Arturo is only 57.