I read this as part of my 15 Books of Summer list, but haven’t had the chance to write up my thoughts until now. Anyway, I imagine that people have in general heard of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a historical mystery set in a 14th century abbey, but just in case I’ll summarise. It has a brief framing narrative – an opening “foreword” of sorts from a character (whose name currently escapes me, or who is perhaps not named at all) who found and translated the manuscript for publication in the 1980s. The main body of the work concerns a mystery (or perhaps a cluster of mysteries) that occur in a wealthy and renowned Benedictine monastery in medieval Italy, known for having one of the most extensive libraries in Christendom. Adso of Melk is the first person narrator of the main body of the story. He’s a young Benedictine novice who is apprenticed to the Franciscan monk William of Baskerville. By the time Adso is writing, he’s elderly and approaching the end of his life, but he’s reflecting back on a time when he was in his late teens (the bulk of the novel is set in 1327). The story recounts Adso and William’s stay at the monastery where the mystery is occuring, and their attempt to solve it.

Adso and William initially attend because the monastery is being used as neutral place for negotiations between senior Franciscans and representatives of the Pope, with the latter accusing the former of heresy. When they arrive, a young monk, Adelmo, has recently died in unusual circumstances. William has previous experience as an inquisitor (though in fact he disliked the role and gave it up). He’s therefore asked to look into the death. However, the abbot sets strict criteria on William’s investigation – he is not, under any circumstances, to enter the library, and indeed no monk can except the librarian and his assistant. The novel unfolds as a twofold mystery: how did Adelmo die, and why have they been barred from a whole section of the monastery? What secrets does it conceal? Because of the setting, there are limited physical clues (though there are some), so it is an investigation into the culture and characters of the monastery. This allows for the characters to be very well-developed – William and Adso are the most fleshed-out, but there are other interesting characters as well. The setting is also convincing – I loved the way Eco structured this according to the rhythm of the monks’ daily prayers – e.g. matins, lauds, prime etc.

I really enjoyed this, as a mystery, as commentary on corruption in the church, and as a critique of academic elitism. I particularly enjoyed the way the story was fragmented through so many points of view, so that there is no way of knowing whether the reader has received the “true” story – it’s presented as a contemporary (Italian) translation of a centuries-old manuscript, which was written by a German monk in Latin, decades after the events occurred, sometimes reporting things that William has told him second-hand. Some sections also include translations out of Arabic, which neither Adso nor William can read. There are also assorted signs and symbols, most of which are very linked to 14th century theological debates and impossible to pick up on from the 21st century (even if your Scripture knowledge is pretty good). By the time it made it into my hands, of course, it had been through a further translation from Italian into English. That’s a fascinating way of telling a mystery story, because so often a mystery relies on giving the reader the same facts as the detective but obscuring them – but in this case, the many layers of translation and symbolism make that impossible.

A 21st century rainforest in August and a 14th century monastery in winter are very different, but I was still transported.

I also loved the way Eco handled the ending, and I will endeavour to explain why without spoiling it by way of a comparison. I recently reread Busman’s Honeymoon, the last of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. It’s not the strongest mystery of the series, but it is perhaps the strongest (or one of them) as a novel. Peter’s PTSD commonly flares up after cases when he is forced to deal with the consequences of the investigation, which is a significant theme of the series and of this book in particular. Having given orders that led men to their death while he was Major Wimsey in WWI, he struggles to cope with the knowledge that his detective work has sent someone to the gallows – even though identifying the guilty party saves an innocent individual from being hanged. (I don’t know what DL Sayers actually thought of the death penalty, but I think the Wimsey novels are some of the most effective arguments against capital punishment I’ve ever read). As a result, Busman’s Honeymoon refuse to engage in the same type of neat closure that other detective stories do (including early Wimsey novels), where the arrest of the murderer means everything has been resolved. It looks at how grubby the whole process is: how awful that someone was murdered in the first place, how awful an effect the investigation has on everyone involved, how awful it is that someone ends up dying as a result. Although the ending of The Name of the Rose is very different in details, I think the refusal to provide closure is very similar. The reader certainly gets an answer as to what’s going on, and it’s an interesting one – but it actively resists the idea that solving the mystery = resolving the problem. Everything is much messier than that.

I loved this novel and think it’s likely to be one of my favourite books of the year! I took it to Peru with me and even carted it around in the “essentials only” duffle bag I took to the rainforest. The Name of the Rose is a really enjoyable read – it’s easy to see why it’s one of the best-selling novels of all time! I’ve tried to read it a couple of times before and been unsuccessful, so it requires a bit of activation energy to get into it – but I’m glad I finally picked it up at the right time.