Umberto Eco presents the reader with an “(English translation of) my Italian version of an obscure, neo-Gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century.”
Adso of Melk’s life is drawing to a close but he takes up his pen to tell of the mysterious events at an unnamed Italian Benedictine abbey in 1327 when he was the “scribe and disciple” of Brother William of Baskerville.
William is a member of the Franciscan order, mentored by Roger Bacon and a friend of William of Occam, and is visiting the abbey to attend a theological debate on the poverty of Christ and his apostles, but on arrival he is asked to investigate the death of Adelmo of Otranto, an illuminator, whose body was found at the bottom of the cliff below the Aedificium, the tower containing the abbey’s famed library.
More deaths ensue as William endeavours to find a murderer and the secrets of the labyrynthine library.
He is capable of Holmesian deduction – approaching the abbey for the first time he tells the search party where to find the abbot’s horse and can even tell them its name – can decipher a cryptogram, and employs the latest scientific invention to aid in his labours. He is at once proud of his abilities and yet humble as when he speaks of why he stopped being an inquisitor:
“I lacked the courage to investigate the weaknesses of the wicked, because I discovered they are the same as the weaknesses of the saintly.”
This is a rich book, sometimes overly descriptive – I did skip a few of the longer passages – but the combination of medieval history, philosophy, theology, and a murder mystery make for an overall delightful reading experience.
This review is part of my new series on The 100 Greatest Literary Detectives.