Thursday, December 6, 2007

Death in Spain, Murder and Race Relations in Boston and Philly- Part 3

The Flanders Panel (TFP) by Arturo Perez-Reverte was written by one of my favorite authors. I have read about 80% of his novels that have been translated into English. The writing is always outstanding. Unlike with many authors, these novels span genres, styles and subject matter, and have settings that are modern or historical, or both.

Chess plays a big role in TFP. Earlier this autumn I read and discussed Katherine Neville's cult classic, The Eight, in which the game of chess is also central to the story. TFP isn't a stuffy book by any means, however. We experience a world of Madrid's beauty, love and betrayal in distant the past and present, modern dance clubs and vices, art galleries, collectors and dealers, threatening businessmen, fast-living bums and studious academics. Oh, and plenty of murders that don't seem to make sense.

In TFP, first we meet Julia, a beautiful art restorer who is working on The Game of Chess, a painting from by the Flemish master Van Huys that needs some work before it can be auctioned. Julia has just received a set of X-ray photographs of the painting, and they reveal a surprising and startling secret. Underneath layers of paint, yet dating to the time of the original painting, is a Latin inscription visible only via the X-ray results:

Quis Necavit Equitem
The translation she immediately carries out yields "Who killed the knight?" It turns out that other slightly different translations are also possible, and perhaps valid.

Although "The Game of Chess" had been known for 500 years, and even hung in the Prado during the early part of the 20th century, the discovery of a hidden inscription has the chance to increase the painting's value greatly at auction, so the wolves start circling immediately. An auction is planned shortly in order to raise money for the once-patrician, and currently dysfunctional, family that owns the piece of art and history.

I like the idea of a place, Spain is this case, where a stunningly beautiful woman devotes herself to restoring and researching art and who has the background to read Latin with aplomb and write brilliant summaries and analyses of the provenance and authenticity of classical paintings. In such a place, I could perhaps live happily, maybe with a job as museum guard. Even though this seems like one idiot's version of paradise, the idiot being me, Julia is in for an extended patch of stormy weather. However, she may turn out to be one of the lucky inhabitants of this intriguing place where new and old worlds collide.

One of the pleasures of this book is the chess puzzles, the first of which is the puzzle left by the painter on the the canvas, one that does not require X-rays to be revealed. The painting shows a chess game between two men, a nobleman and a soldier, being played while a woman sits in the background reading a book. The whole scene is reflected in a mirror, and the floor tiles of the room represent the pattern of a chessboard. The actual chessboard used for the game is placed between the two male subjects, who are rendered precisely, as are all of the details of the room. The artist painted in an intricate style, and even the room's reflection in the mirror can be seen. The chess pieces and their placement on the board are clear, and the game has progressed quite far, though not very conventionally.

The first part of the puzzle is to work the painting's game in reverse and determine which piece took the white knight. Why? Because the painter seems to have constructed the entire painting to be a set of clues to a centuries-old murder. Julia solves this puzzle and its sad secrets with help from friends- an old family friend and a new recruit from a local chess club. The chess puzzles in the book are enhanced by pictures of chess boards, so you can try to work out the next (or previous) moves on your own.

However, while further researching the painting and its refractory inscription, odd events begin to occur around Julia, and several of her friends are murdered. It seems that she and her friends have to solve a new chess puzzle based on the game in the painting. The new puzzle is being set for them by some sort of deranged chess master, and it seems to encompass the lives and deaths of the painting's subjects and of Julia et al. The killer starts playing the painting's game forwards, and the taking of pieces corresponds to more murders. Anticipating the next move becomes a matter of life and death.

Will Julia survive? Is she the White Queen? Which of her friends are represented by the other pieces on the board? Which themes from Greek tragedy will play a prominent role? Perhaps the day be will be saved by Julia and an unlikely hero, an introverted chess master who never wins a game, but settles for showing his opponent that he could win if wanted to. At least this one time, settling for a moral victory could prove fatal. With all the confusion, possible betrayals, accelerating pace, and substantial odds against Julia's coterie, perhaps the game will will be lost. Read The Flanders Panel to find out.

Note added afterwards: I forgot to mention that I especially enjoyed reading that Julia listens to the music of Michael Edges! Mr. Hedges was never edgier.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Death in Spain, Murder and Race Relations in Boston and Philadelphia- Part 2

A Drink Before the War (ADBTW) is a tale of dirty politicians, drug wars, race relations (good and bad), and private eyes who operate outside the law with impunity. Add to this an unhealthy dose of behavior right out of a Greek play by Aeschylus and you have enough ammunition for a high-energy, high body count thriller. However, author Dennis Lehane doesn't stop there in his first novel about private detectives Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie. He takes on the problem of battered spouses, and he adds the baggage of growing up in a neighborhood where "hood" is the operative word, and the criminal in question may well be your Dad.

The good guys, the bad guys and the men, women and children who straddle the moral line come mostly from Irish, Italian, and African American ethnic groups that dominate various Boston neighborhoods. There is no correlation between socioeconomic status and moral character, though the poor and homeless beat the Statehouse crowd hands down when it comes to true character.

So, what is different about this book from all similar crime novels? The book differs in the way it addresses issues of race and class, head on, and pulls no punches. Some of the book touches raw nerves, but it does so by providing dialog and scenes that authentically portray how some black and white friends (and enemies) would discuss and argue and fight and make truces, or not make truces, depending on how far things had gone. Of course, this means that the book doesn't offer us any easy answers, or any answers at all, but with many of these issues, a whole a lot talking needs to go on before it will be possible for communities to agree on answers. ADBTW adds to the dialog and doesn't exploit the characters.

One additional subplot that rings true is the way that Kenzie, who has been in love with Gennaro since childhood, constantly subjects her to sexual harassment in the course of their professional partnership while simultaneously acting as avenging angel towards Gennaro's wife-beating husband. Patrick Kenzie isn't perfect, and he isn't a saint, and he still hangs out with old friends who are serious criminals, and he can barely control himself when it comes to Angie, and he doesn't have pat answers to serious problems facing society. On the other hand, with any matter not involving Angie, he does know right from wrong, if right and wrong can actually be identified. In this book, as in life, just identifying the right course of action can be difficult, and following it can cause considerable anguish, offering no reason for celebration once the final step is taken.

James K. Bashkin

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