Eco, a renowned literary scholar, brings to this début work of fiction the sensibility of an unapologetic polymath. The result is a novel that brims over with the fruits of his wide-ranging research—and with signs of his brainy, manic ambition. It’s at once a faithful pastiche of the mystery genre and a bravura performance that gleefully transcends the boundaries of genre. There is room here not only for seven violent deaths, all taking place at a secluded abbey located high in the North Italian mountains (the structure is ancient even in 1327, when this chronicle takes place), but also for a discourse on the social and political history of heretical sects, for a psychological and theological examination of the Inquisition, and for a survey of European high politics in a time of two popes and one Holy Roman Emperor, who (as the old witticism goes) was neither holy nor from Rome nor much of an emperor. Two figures stir this bubbling cauldron of ingredients into a coherent narrative. The first is a shadowy murderer who apparently takes his cue from the Book of Revelation. The second is a Franciscan Inquisitor whose forensic methods anticipate scientific criminal-investigation techniques by half a millennium. This proto-sleuth bears the none-too-subtle name William of Baskerville, and he’s accompanied by a Dominican novice whose own cognomen, Adso of Melk, carries a trace echo of the name Watson.
As Conan Doyle does in the Sherlock Holmes tales, Eco in The Name of the Rose turns the quest for knowledge into an engine of drama. Indeed, the question of knowledge (Is it a matter of reason, or of revelation?) lies at the very core of this opus. In the case of Adso, the knowledge that eludes and addles his mind is carnal, and he devotes much of his time at the abbey to exploring the mysteries of love and lust. But he also finds time to watch William’s quest unfold. (True to his Watsonian model, he narrates this adventure.) The man from Baskerville acts as a hound of truth—truth in its modern form as a quality that is lodged in nature and amenable to human scrutiny. Dead friars pile up at a rate of one per day before William at last finds the pivotal clue deep in the center of the abbey library, a maze-like structure that looms as a veritable labyrinth of turpitude. In the end, a resolutely medieval darkness hangs over the story. Even so, William’s feat of detection offers a narrow sliver of light and, perhaps, the promise of further enlightenment yet to come.