These days I read nonfiction almost exclusively. If I read fiction at all it is seldom a murder mystery that I choose, but at one point in my life I devoured them like candy bars. My mother calls them Junk Books, a bit like watching TV but more active for the brain, and we both agree that there are good Junk Books and bad Junk Books. Of the good variety, I think I have read all of Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, the MacDonalds- both Ross and John D––, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and many, many others. These days I find the real world at least as twisted and gripping as any mystery.
So it was with great pleasure that I encountered a writer of mysteries that I enjoyed again. The author’s name is Arturo Perez-Revete. He is Spanish, and one of the most widely translated of that country’s contemporary authors. He was a journalist (how many times have we heard this as a valuable background for a writer), as well as a war correspondent before he took up writing fiction. His favorite subject is finding mysteries surrounding ancient documents.
I recently finished his mystery, The Flanders Panel. Published in 2004 it is the story of a young art restorer, Julia, who has been commissioned to document and restore a 500-year-old painting going to auction. Working on it in her studio she becomes engrossed with the subjects of the painting, the Duke of Flanders and his knight locked in a game of chess while a lady in a dark dress sits in the background, reading. Julia also discovers a message hidden under all the paint, left by the painter himself. She is determined to solve the puzzle and it takes her on a mysterious and dangerous journey.
All this is par for the mystery writer. What I enjoyed about Reverte’s writing is his use of language. Granted the book has been translated from its native tongue, Spanish, but the imagery is really lovely. He is also a complex thinker, delving into art, chess, and human nature as the story progresses. He also describes in detail scenes not particularly central to the story. I liked this one where Julia is wandering through a flea market:
After a while she went back down the steps and stopped at a shop full of dolls. Some were clothed, others were naked; some were dressed in picturesque peasant costumes or complicatedly romantic outfits complete with gloves, hats, and parasols. Some represented girls and others grown women. The features of some were crude, others were ingenuous, perverse. Their arms and hands were frozen in diverse positions, as if surprised by the cold wind of all the time that had passed since their owners abandoned or sold them, or died. Girls who became women, thought Julia––some beautiful, some plain, who had loved or perhaps been loved––had once caressed those bodies made of rags, cardboard, and porcelain. Those dolls had survived their owners. They were dumb, motionless witnesses whose imaginary retinas still retained images of scenes long erased from the memories of the living: faded pictures sketched among mists of nostalgia, intimate moments of family life, children’s songs, loving embraces, as well as tears and disappointments, dreams turned to ashes, decay and sadness, perhaps even evil. There was something unbearably touching about that multitude of glass and porcelain eyes that stared at her unblinking, full of the Olympian knowledge that only time possesses, lifeless eyes embedded in pale wax or paper-mache faces, above dresses so darkened by time that the lace edgings looked dull and grubby.
I could go on with this passage, but I will stop. It does relate to the story in the end, the philosophy behind that passage. Reverte weaves these throughout the book slowly building the tension and the underlying theme so subtlety. Gorgeous writing, I have to say.
On the down side, I was a bit disappointed that it was one of those mysteries so complex that the writer finds it necessary in the end for the villain to confess and then explain his motive in the crime. I really didn’t mind, in this case, because the writing is so good. My only other minor complaint is that our heroine, Julia, happily smokes like the proverbial chimney whilst stripping varnish off a 500-year-old painting. But Spaniards do smoke like campfires, God love them, so it is probably in character for her to do this.
I will try another of his books; fortunately he has many.