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VINE VOICEon 15 July 2002
The Flanders Panel opens, aptly enough, with a puzzle: when art restorer Julia carries out a routine X-ray inspection of her latest project, Pieter Van Huys' The Game of Chess, she is astonished to discover hidden under the uppermost layers of paint the inscription quis necavit equitem ('Who killed the knight?) As we soon learn, the 'knight' in question is not just the piece in the hand of one of the players in the painting, Ferdinand Altenhoffen, Duke of Ostenberg, but his opponent in the game, his friend and trusted courtier, Roger de Arras, who was assassinated two years before the painting was created. Thus begins an intellectual endeavour by Julia and her associates to resolve a fifteenth century murder using the clues provided in the painting, with the realisation that a resolution could skyrocket the asking price of the picture.
However, as historical research begins to shed new light on the lives of the characters in the painting - especially the third, Beatrice of Burgundy, the Duke's consort - the untimely death of one of the investigators adds a sinister atmosphere to the intellectual enquiries, and lends new importance to the chess game being played within the painting. Julia and her lifelong companion César, a dandified homosexual antique dealer, react by recruiting the detached and reticent Muñoz, the unfathomable genius of the local Capablanca Chess Club, to aid them in uncovering the hidden chess puzzles in the painting. As Muñoz begins his retrogade analysis of the game in the picture, in an effort to reveal which piece took the white knight, a malevolent figure begins to play out the game that has remained static for five centuries, and the investigative team begin to realise with horror that each of them is in effect one of the remaining pieces, with each move having a corresponding effect in reality....

The Flanders Panel is a must for anyone with an interest in the clarificatory effect of applied logic: anyone who has read and enjoyed Poe's Dupin tales, or Sherlock Holmes, Umberto Eco, or José Luis Borges will be drawn to Pérez-Reverte's classical style of making problems increasingly complicated until only the loftiest intelligence (here, Muñoz) can draw rational conclusions from them. It is not unfair to say that Pérez-Reverte owes much to Poe, particularly in his presentation of the opposition of the two analytical mindsets: the rather uninspired conviction of Muñoz that all imaginable worlds or possibilities are governed by the same logical truths as the real world, and the more abstract belief of Don Manuel Belmonte (the owner of The Game of Chess) that all categorisations are arbitrary, and no system is without its own inherent, and self-destructive, contradictions. Unlike Poe, however, Pérez-Reverte seems to trust in mathematical reasoning as the most effective means towards truth; whereas the former warned that 'unpredictable' truths were outside the boundaries of an absolutely general applicability. The narrative is saturated with Pérez-Reverte's knowledge of chess, be it quotations from Lasker or Kasparov, or the particular idiosyncracies of Steinitz, Morphy, or Petrosian, and the use of chess diagrams throughout will have you playing a bizarre sort of postal chess, trying to anticipate the events of the next chapter before they happen. The boundaries between chess and fiction have rarely been so expertly drawn together.
Even if you are not a chess aficionado there is much to be enjoyed in this book, since it remains a classical whodunit with all the page-turning qualities and evocation of suspense associated with that genre. The hidden layers of meaning created through means of perspective, and the means of atmosphere directly linked to the world of painting in which the story is set - i.e. the frequent use of shadow, light and reflection in the descriptions of a tenebrous Madrid, as well as the recurrent use of the primary colours - are undeniably effective in rendering the often hinted-at Borgesian idea that every dimension exists within another. That is, the chess players in the painting are reflected in a convex mirror, and are standing on a floor of regular black and white tiles (thus, two other simultaneous games are occurring); the characters in the novels are themselves part of a perverse chess game, and often feel themselves drawn into the Van Huys, and we (the reader) are also simultaneously playing the game ourselves, playing with the lives of the characters as we read about them. It is this type of multidimensional narrative that I found the most ingenious aspect of this book, which is as much a puzzle book as it is a novel, as much a tribute to the hidden depths of chess as it is a murder mystery. Highly recommended.
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on 23 November 2005
I had high hopes for this murder-mystery novel and it does start off very well and is intriguing after the art restorer, Julia, finds a hidden inscription on the painting she is working on. However after the first half the book becomes a disappointment - not because of the quality of the writing but because of the plot - the climax is a distinct disappointment and the reasoning behind the murderer's actions are verging on the ridiculous. I think there may be some issues with the translations too - it mentions more than once that the "Queen is put in check" which anybody who has ever played chess would know to be an incorrect term. All in all this promised a lot but failed to deliver.
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on 20 September 2011
In theory "The Flanders Panel" has the promise of a compelling mystery story. On its publication it garnered reviews that featured praise for its "philosophical", "intellectual" subjects as well as inevitable comparisons to Umberto Eco's bestseller.

The beginning of the novel I really enjoyed with the fascinating mystery surrounding a 15th Century painting, "The Game of Chess" by Pieter Van Huys. The descriptions of the painting, invented by the author, is obviously inspired by the work of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painters and shows a fair amount of research into that era of history. There is an early occurrence of an unbelievable point though: would an expert in art restoration constantly chain-smoke around centuries old paintings and highly-flammable liquids?

The idea of solving a centuries-old murder hinted at in a painting is a tantalising one but it seemed to me to reach its resolution far too quickly. If the novel had just been about solving the mystery behind the painting I would have liked it much more, but it then focuses on the story of a modern-day murderer obsessed with the painting and playing out the central motif of the chess game. This is where my interest waned.

The writing style fairly bristles with erudition and yet it is done with little finesse. Themes of art history, theories of chess, music and mathematics, psychology, philosophy and various other subjects appear. All very interesting stuff but it is forced into the plot as though being ticked off a list.

What finally set my low opinion of this novel was the incessant reminders that one main character is gay. I realise this is a "mileage may vary" comment, but, as the homosexuality of the character is the key element for the conclusion I found it a ludicrous ending and an extremely unpleasant stereotype as well.

Definitely not worth the laurels it was given, in my view.
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on 1 September 2003
Arturo Perez-Reverte's skill at spinning a yarn and keeping the reader gripped is a marvel to behold. Having read and enjoyed 'The Fencing Master' I felt I had to try another of his novels, and this certainly did not disappoint. Set in the cut and thrust of the art world in modern day Madrid, the story follows Julia, a picture restorer, as she tries to uncover the story behind the mysterious Flanders Panel, and in the process finds her life under threat from an unknown chess playing opponent who seems to be playing almost from within the game depicted on the panel. The plot keeps twisting right up to the end, and the final denoument left me astonished. If you have read and enjoyed the fencing master, then this book is for you. If you've never read Perez-Reverte before, then this is certainly a good place to start.
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on 22 November 2002
Having read this book again, this time in the original Spanish, as well as having been surprised at the negativity of the reviews already on here for "The Flanders Panel", I felt compelled to add my own opinion...
Firstly, I can honestly say that this particular translation of Perez-Reverte's is an extremely faithful version when compared to the original language in which this was first written, having lost none of the richness of language or feeling conveyed to the reader, although the word 'disconcerted' appears a good few times when another word would have done. And then to the plot...
This was the first of Perez-Reverte's novels that I had read, and I'm glad I did. Not only does the reader become acquainted with a with variety of characters and personalities, each with their own part to play in this story, you'll also get to know the autumn rains which soak Madrid, the dodgy policemen, and heaps of art and culture. Indeed, it should be mentioned that this novel leaves you feeling as if you've sampled civilization at its peak, with silk handkerchiefs, gold cigarette cases and Paris mentioned smoothly throughout. But then these only add to what is a blistering account of how a young art restorer, working on an almost priceless Van Huys painting of a lord and a knight playing chess, and a beautiful young lady in the background, finds a cryptic clue on the suspicious death of the knight depicted. An investigation ensues...and then people surrounding the young heroine start to die suspiciously too. Is the painting connected? Is a pattern forming on the chess board in the picture? An expert chess player is draughted in, and the reader joins Julia, Muñoz and Cesar as the race to find a murderer before he strikes again, ending in a thrilling, and what I thought to be a particularly well-rounded, climax.
To end with, I've also had the good fortune to read another of Señor Perez-Reverte's novels, 'The Dumas Club', which I also enjoyed and which also had 'parallel mysteries' running side by side throughout, although I still think 'The Flanders Panel' is the better of the two. A corker of a read!
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on 11 March 2004
This clever mystery suffers from the fact that is very hard to buy into the psychology of its characters. As long as the author moves in more intellectual territory - chess moves, intricate plotting -we're fine. It's when he tries to explain the emotions and motives of people that we've got a problem. None of the characters ever become more than pawns on a board. Frankly, I couldn't care less about them.

That doesn't mean it's not a page-turner: people dragging crimes out of the shadows of history is always makes for a good plotline (think Possession by A.S. Byatt or Headlong by Michael Frayn) and this is no exception. So, if you're not big on human interest, and looking for something that is smart and original, this is a good choice.

(Oh, just one more gripe - do you play chess? If not, the in-depth analysis of a game carried on throughout the book will give a new definition to page-turner, namely turning the pages before you have even read them.)
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on 1 April 2004
The beginning looked very promising. Being very interested in chess and medieval history I found it hard to put the book down at first. However, the book suffers from some major flaws. First of all, soon after the first half of the book it becomes pretty obvious who the killer is. Second, the chess bits include several mistakes which even an amateur like myself can easily spot. For example, the "chess expert" Muñoz is impressed when the mysterious murderer plays Pd7-d5, but this is in fact a terrible blunder for Black. Also, a "check" occurs only when the king comes under attack, not the queen. The author really should have tried to learn a bit more about chess before writing the book. Finally, the long digressions into Julia's fantasies about the painting get a bit boring and repetitive after a while. It's a pity because there was enough material for a good novel, but as it is the book doesn't quite hang together.
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on 11 November 2002
I feel compelled to write this review based on those I have just read on the site. Especially those reviewers who claim they will never read another book by the author. Which is a shame, as Perez Reverte is the author of a really superb novel - "The Dumas Club", which was interestingly reimagined as "The Ninth Gate" by the Polish film director Roman Polanski.
What is wrong with this book? Well, personally I found the references to homosexuality insulting and slightly offensive. A stackful of cliches and much too conveniently stereotyped for fictional devices - something quite appalling from an author of this stature. Other reviewers are correct to point out the book's derivative quality - it is essentially based on "Goedel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter, a debt it only acknowledges indirectly through quotations.
That said, there are some parts of the novel which are quite interesting - I personally enjoyed the parts involving chess, and it is evident that Perez Reverte is a well read and intelligent author. Such a shame in this particular novel that he fails to live up to his own intellectual promise.
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on 30 July 1999
This book hinges on the discovery of an overpainted inscription in a painting being restored. This in turn prompts a new reading of the chess game in the picture as a puzzle - the solution of which holds the key to the murder of one of the people in the picture.
However Julia, the picture restorer soon finds that murders in the present day are occurring as well. These too appear linked to the game of chess.
This book is oddly paced with the solution to the historical problem occurring about halfway through. There then follows the investigation into the present day mystery. However the denoument occurs more as a process of illimination, rather than of Julia's sagacity. While the perpetrator when found has an entirely unconvincing motive. There is also an underlying homophobia throughout the book.
This book is clever and interesting to read, but at the end of it I was unsatisfied and had a bitter taste in the mouth.
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on 24 December 2002
Excellently written and translated, this is a murder mystery with a twist.
Set in Madrid, the worlds of art and chess improbably collide. During restoration of an old painting, a clue to an ancient murder appears. Soon, a modern murder follows. The tension mounts as a chess master tries to solve the puzzle of the chess game in the painting, before the present day murderer strikes again.
A fascinating book for chess players like me. No knowledge of chess is required to follow the story as it unravels, however. Not a book to be skimmed through, but one that rewards readers who like to think as well as read. This is one of the best books I have ever read.

I guess that Spanish speakers would prefer the original, but there is none of the dubious English often found in translations.
Far superior to The Fencing Master, which is the only other book of this author I have yet read.
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