I wrote this review back in the 1980s for "Thinks!", shortly after the book had been published. It was a good year for the Middle Ages in detection - I had also got hold of Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael story "The Leper of St Giles".
Eco's story was the more complex, and I remember trying to map out the structure of the hidden library from the details given - modern books probably have a map. But both were clearly well-researched, and the authors had done their homework well, unlike the Dan Brown school of writing historical fiction. Most of all, though, they both provided another world, there in all its lively complexity, and part of the enjoyment of reading the books was being drawn into that world and experiencing it - all the small and domestic details that gave them reality, as well as the larger plot.
There have been scores of imitators of Ellis Peters, set around the Middle Ages (which after all encompasses a large period), but nothing to really match Eco's philosophical murder. The film, starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville, wasn't bad either.
The TV adaptations of the Brother Cadfael books starring Derek Jacobi were more patchy - Jacobi himself was excellent, but different actors played some of the key subsidiary roles such as Hugh, the Deputy Sheriff, giving different performances and a lack of solidity to the character.
"The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco: A Book Review
Someone is murdering the monks in a mediaeval monastery; one by one, they perish under the most bizarre of circumstances. Such is, as one might expect, the plot outline of a detective story, and on one level this book can be read and enjoyed as such. Yet this is more than a mere detective story. It is a fascinating recreation of a mediaeval world-view, accurately depicting events through the eyes - and outlook - of a young novice to the monastery.
Eco is a distinguished historian who teaches at the University of Bologna. As one might expect from such a background, he is able to bring alive all the variety and splendour of the middle ages through a multitude of subtle nuances. And the pursuit of truth in ',the case of the mysterious deaths becomes as much a philosophical problem as a materialistic one.
This is an extremely well-written and intriguing book which may be read and enjoyed on many levels. Here is an extract:
The supper was joyless and silent. It had been just over twelve hours since the discovery of Venantius' corpse. All the others stole glimpses at his empty place at table. When it was the hour for compline, the procession that marched into the choir seemed like a funeral cortege... We moved into the shadows, hiding in the side nave, so that no one would see us stay behind when the office was over. Under my scapular I had the lamp that I had purloined in the kitchen during supper. We would light it later at the great bronze tripod that burned all night. I had procured a new wick and ample oil. We would have light for a long time.
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