Arturo Perez-Reverte is a well known Spanish author who mainly writes historical novels; he has a series about a swashbuckling seventeenth century hero, Captain Alatriste. This is an early book (1990, translated 1994), and one of the few set in modern times, though it still involves the evocation of the past.
Beautiful young Julia restores paintings and other objects d’art. She has been asked to work on a fifteenth century painting – the Flanders panel – that is being put up for sale. The painting shows two men playing chess, and a woman reading. She is excited to find that an X-ray of the painting reveals a hidden inscription: Who killed the knight? What does it mean and why was it hidden? The value of the painting would be much increased if this puzzle can be solved. But the first person she consults, a Professor of art history and a former lover, soon ends up dead. An expert chess player helps her work out the riddle posed by the picture. But is the chess game somehow continuing in Julia’s life, and does taking a chess piece in the course of play equate to killing a person?
I can see that Perez-Reverte would write good historical novels; he clearly has a feel for creating times past. The painting, and the life it depicts, are beautifully rendered, and the writer creates a whole imaginary geopolitical landscape in which to set its characters. I even went to Google to check whether the painting and its Flemish artist, Pieter van Huys, really existed. They don’t, of course, though the work as described is similar to that of the Dutch masters Pieter de Hooch and Jan Vermeer. (They are seventeenth century painters, not fifteenth century ones. My historical sensibilities were also offended by the suggestion that van Huys was a bourgeois painter – that concept didn’t exist in the fifteenth century.) But none of this matters when you are reading about it; what he creates seems quite real.
Chess is a major part of the story, and it probably helps if you know at least the basic moves. The ones that are important in the story are shown in several diagrams. There’s also a certain amount of musing on the relationship of chess to love and war, and this is relevant, which is just as well because otherwise it would be a bit turgid. The mystery is solved by seeing what is happening in real life as if it were a game of chess. The chess master applies Sherlock Holmes’s observation – that when you have eliminated all that is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth – to the task of finding the identity of the unknown player who seems to be controlling Julia’s life. This turns out to be a quite a clever application of the ‘least likely’ suspect convention.
As with all mystery stories where the protagonist is an ordinary person, I’m interested in the motivation that makes that person follow the dangerous path necessary to solve the crime. Julia is frightened, but her fear is ‘percolated by an intense curiosity, in which there was a strong dash of personal pride and defiance. It was like a dangerous, exciting game’. I don’t find this entirely convincing. And she really doesn’t grow up at all during the book, though the story line gives her an opportunity to do so. I’m also interested in the motivation of the baddie; unfortunately this is revealed in my least favourite way – the villain explains it at the end. But I may just be a bit obsessive about plot. I could see greater coherence looking back on it than there seemed to be when reading it, so maybe it is just an matter of taste whether you prefer to see the building blocks of the plot being put in place as you go, or are happy to have all revealed at the end.
Overall, I wouldn’t go out of my way to read this book. But with his talent for historical description, I think Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste books might be quite fun. (Think Viggo Mortensen in the title role of the 2006 movie Alatriste). Pirates of the Levant (2010) is his most recent book.
You can find out more about Arturo Perez-Reverte here.