BOOK REVIEW / Endless deadly knights: 'The Flanders Panel' - Arturo Perez Reverte Tr. Margaret Jull Costa: Harvill, 15.99 pounds

AROUND 550 BC, in a philosophical treatise known as the Bhavisya-Purana, an anonymous Indian sage gave the first known description of a game called Chaturanga (later known as chess) and explained that it was a reflection of the battles men fought in the real world. Five centuries later, Omar Khayyam compared our life to a game of chess. Life as a game that must be puzzled out; life as a combat whose outcome depends on deliberate moves: these are the convictions chess shares with that other game, the detective story. There, too, a pair of opponents - the criminal, the detective - plot against each other according to the laws of logic.

The young Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte, like many of his venerable predecessors since the days of Sherlock Holmes, has taken advantage of this affinity between the playing of chess and the reasoning out of crime. His plot is of remarkable simplicity: a talented picture restorer, Julia, is commissioned to work on a 15th century Flemish painting called The Game of Chess: a nobleman and a knight are depicted playing at a chessboard, watched by a young woman.

Cleaning the picture, Julia uncovers a question in Latin: 'Who Killed the Knight?' Curiosity leads her to investigate what appears to be a crime committed five centuries earlier; in the process, several of Julia's friends are killed in more or less horrible and mysterious ways, and Julia herself is threatened. Someone, apparently, is trying to keep the ancient crime a secret.

With the aid of a chess master, Julia learns eventually the answer to both puzzles - past and present - which may in fact be the same. Uneasily, the reader (who does not need to know anything about chess to enjoy the book) suspects that the story is infinite, and that now author and reader have became players in an age-old game.

Woven throughout the book are variations on Omar's remark; the reader is kept wondering who indeed moves the different players, all of whom stubbornly believe that they are in control of their own actions. It soon becomes obvious that they are all playing out a game masterminded by someone who must remain unknown (of course) until the resolution. Even the fact that the secret history of the painting obviously mirrors the events in Julia's world doesn't help her or the others understand that they too are nothing but pawns. 'Any imaginable world,' says the chess master, 'is governed by the same rules as the real world.' Julia, the realist, requires 290 pages to see this truth.

The milieu of museum curators and experts and auctioneers provides a convincing setting; the historical background is informative and entertaining; only the stereotype of a decadent, facetious and aging gay art collector spoils an otherwise engaging plot of victims and villains in which the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, has cleverly rendered the various tones of Madrid's upper crust of bon vivants and intellectuals. Before Franco, the Spanish detective novel was discreet to the point of invisibility. Perez-Reverte, among others, has redeemed the genre. The Flanders Panel (which won the Grand Prix de la Litterature Policiere in France) is a classic puzzle that respects the rules and yet offers an original solution. The final moves are surprising, satisfactory, and as inevitable as a game of chess.

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