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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York