Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and Benedectine novice Adso arrive at a monastery in Italy for a theological dispute. Many influential figures in the Catholic church will be there and the abbott is eager to have everything in place and perfect for such an important event. When a body of a monk is found in the most unusual place the abbot asks William to investigate and find the killer before the legates get there, but neither of them suspects that it will be no easy task because every day there is a new murder.
I read this book in 2009, after an almost 10-year hiatus from reading (college and its thick textbooks apparently can have that effect sometimes), and nearly two years later I couldn't quite get all the plot points straight in my head but remembered that I enjoyed it very much. That is until I heard an interview with Umberto Eco on BBC World Book Club and it brought back the details of this complex story. I couldn't put the jovial and oh so clever Mr. Eco out of my mind and eventually decided that writing a review of the book would be a nice little tribute to his work.
It was fascinating to find out that Eco is a scholar who specializes in medieval studies so the details of places, conflicts, ideas and descriptions of monastic life are historically accurate, especially since they so seamlessly blend with fiction to create an intriguing narrative that reads like a memoir of a participant, albeit in a modern language.
There are several things that make this book not your average historical murder mystery. Eco doesn't find it necessary to spoon-feed his audience, he feels we must do some mental work while reading: there are so many plot lines that complicate William's investigation that sometimes it was a real exercise to remember who everybody was and what their deal was, as they say; the text is peppered with phrases in Latin, quotes from books and religious authorities of the time, and there is no translation for them (apparently some European translations included a glossary but not the American ones); there's also quite a bit of theological discussion, which is to be expected considering the time and place where the novel is set. For these reasons I couldn't breeze through the book and I feel that this made me appreciate the setting and the characters as much as the action - often when I can finish a book in just several days I don't remember much about it in a month and this one is definitely memorable.
The murders are the driving force behind the story but it is the possible motives and the interactions between the monks that give it substance. There are plenty of theological issues to discuss, belief systems to evaluate and question, secret associations to uncover and pure human impulses and wishes ruling these men of faith to make the Benedictines an interesting and sometimes far from saintly bunch. William and Adso are rather colorful characters themselves. They are newcomers to this little community with William using his unusual skills and tools in his task of amateur detective and Adso struggling with the rapidly unfolding events and his own emotions, temptations and fears.
I expected that the reason for the murders would be something very human in its nature, like possessions or indiscretions. I was very surprised that instead it was a theological issue and even more surprised to realize that it was an issue at all in the 14th century and subject of much debate in the religious circles. It really was a different time back then and learning more about it makes me glad to be living today when the most basic things don't have people traveling all over the continent to argue about them.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy murder mysteries with a side of intellectual conversation.