Tuesday, October 12, 2021

the last book I read

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Hardest game in the world, the old art restoration game. I mean, you want to avoid the obvious atrocities like this, but there are more subtle and tricky considerations to grapple with. Can we get the layer of dirty and darkened varnish off, and maybe replace it with a new protective layer, without damaging the paint? If the artist himself made repairs at a later date, are they to be preserved, or removed in search of the pristine "original" work? What does that even mean? What do words, in general, even mean? Does anybody really love anybody anyway

Fortunately experienced and competent art restorers exist, like for instance Julia, who, as we meet her here in Madrid, has just acquired an interesting work to spruce up: The Game of Chess, a 15th-century work by Flemish artist Pieter Van Huys. Not just interesting in its subject matter - two Flemish gentlemen playing chess, based on real people, one of whom, intriguingly, had been dead for two years at the time the painting was done - but also because of what Julia finds when she gets the painting X-rayed (presumably part of the standard pre-restoration assessment process) and receives the results. Those results show that near the bottom of the painting, concealed by a subsequent layer of paint, are some words. Those words are "Quis necavit equitem?", or "Who killed the knight?".

You'll be ahead of me here, so: obviously a knight is a chess piece, and indeed one of the players has a white knight in his hand which he has evidently just taken from the board. But there is more, as there always is, in books longer than about half-a-dozen pages anyway: the player using the black pieces, Roger de Arras, is also "a knight" (the other guy is a nobleman of some sort) and, as we already know, had died a couple of years before the painting was created, after a brief but unpleasant argument with a crossbow bolt on a castle battlement. So does the inscription provide a clue to finding Roger's killer?

Julia and her old friend and art collector César engage the services of a local chess prodigy, Muñoz, to try and retrace the course of the chess game up to the climactic point captured in the painting, and of art historian (and, just to complicate things slightly, her ex-lover) Álvaro to dig into the painting's history and that of the people portrayed within it (the two men already mentioned plus the nobleman's wife, sitting demurely at a window watching the progress of the chess match). No sooner have they done this than Álvaro turns up dead in his shower, apparently having slipped and accidentally viciously bashed the back of his head in on the edge of the bath. Shortly afterwards Julia receives a small card, left by the entrance to her apartment, which contains some possible chess moves for extending the game portrayed in the painting. Is this some sort of coded warning to Julia? Is Álvaro's death connected? Is some chess-obsessed serial killer about to go on a rampage? But who? And why?

One possible motive might be to establish some public notoriety around the painting and thereby push up its value, in which case there are a few possible suspects: the painting's owner, Don Manuel Belmonte, his daughter Lola, Julia's friend and art dealer Menchu, her toy-boy lover Max, and oily auctioneer Paco Montegrifo. Menchu takes herself out of the running early doors by being murdered, and further cards containing further chess moves continue to arrive, with Muñoz keeping track of the current game position and developing a healthy respect for his adversary's chess skills (though not so much his penchant for actual murder). Hardest game in the world, the old chess game

Eventually Muñoz manages to work out the identity of the serial-killing chess enthusiast, and it turns out to be someone we already know, who unexpectedly turns out to have a chess-playing past, ended by the chastening experience of losing to a lesser player. Lying dormant for many years, the chess-playing bug (and associated killing frenzy) was rekindled by exposure to The Game of Chess

None of this really makes any sense, of course, but the same can be said for most detective novels. And while the unravelling of the mystery here is a lot of fun (even if, as usual with these things, the revelation doesn't really live up to the build-up), the main enjoyment comes from the associated detail about art and the analysis of the chess moves, both leading up to and following the capture of the white knight portrayed in the painting. It's the second book in this series to feature chess as a major plot point, The Queen's Gambit being the other. Art and painting also feature prominently, and I'd have had to look up some of the technical terms like craquelure if I hadn't already encountered them in What's Bred In The Bone

The Flanders Panel was made into a film called Uncovered in 1994, starring the lovely Kate Beckinsale as Julia. The linked trailer provides just the suggestion of some sexy sexy times that were absent from the book (it also seems to have relocated it to Barcelona). Despite the disappointingly low sexy sexy times quotient in the book I enjoyed it greatly; like The Queen's Gambit it's perhaps debatable how enjoyable you would find it if you had no chess background whatsoever. I'm trying to imagine how enjoyable I would find a book whose plot revolved around, I dunno, go or halma or something. 

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