Umberto Eco is a literary snob’s dream date. A towering intellectual, he is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books in the fields of literary criticism, semiotics, anthropology, and mass culture. Indeed, his list of international literary and scholarly awards is matched only by the number of honorary degrees he has received from universities around the world.
And guess what? He’s also the author of The Name of the Rose, Mystery #6 for our literary snobs.
As hard as it may be to believe in hindsight, his novel was the sleeper of 1980 — a work of fiction set in the middle ages and written by a respected but, at least to the reading public, obscure Italian scholar who’d built his academic reputation in the field of semiotics. Published without fanfare, this first novel by Eco astounded the publishing world by selling millions of copies and receiving several of Europe’s most prestigious literary prizes.
The novel is a classic murder mystery. It’s set in 1327 in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. Enter our detective, an English Franciscan and master logician named William of Baskerville. Yes, Baskerville. And yes, William is accompanied by his own Dr. Watson, a disciple named Adso who–like Watson–serves as the story’s narrator. The two have come to the monastery as representatives of the Emperor Louis IV to debate the representatives of Pope John XXII on the subject of evangelical poverty.
But before you can say, “Elementary, my dear Adso,” the corpse of a young monk is discovered at the bottom of a cliff and our English detective is scrutinizing the clues. This novel is a deliciously intelligent treat.
As the critic Richard Ellman wrote in The New York Review of Books (a periodical found on the coffee tables of every self-respecting literary snob): “The Name of the Rose succeeds in being amusing and ambitious at the same time. It can be regarded as a philosophical novel masked as a detective story, or as a detective story masked as a historical novel, or even better as a blend of all three.”