As part of my campaign to catch up on the modern classics of the mystery genre, I finally picked up a paperback copy of Umberto Eco’s first novel, originally published in 1980, at the Strand Bookstore near my office.

I had enjoyed Foucault’s Pendulum, with its passing reference to Cthulhu, but was under the impression that The Name of the Rose was a difficult book, full of untranslated Latin passages and theological exposition. I was delighted to discover otherwise. From my long-ago Latin studies, I could at least recognize a word or two, and the digressions about the conflicts among the various factions of the 14th-century Catholic Church were fascinating, grim reminders of the bloody side of religious fanaticism.

And of course the Franciscan friar hero, William of Baskerville, starts making deductions worthy of Sherlock Holmes even before he reaches the remote monastery that’s the medieval equivalent of an English country house with its closed circle of murder suspects. The young monk Adso admirably fills the Dr. Watson role as narrator and awestruck admirer of his gifted friend.

Happily, I had not seen the film adaptation, indeed was totally ignorant of the plot, and hence had the pleasure of having no idea what was going to happen next. My only disappointment was that the novel’s lone female character, the village girl with whom Adso has a one-night stand in the monastery’s labyrinthine library, appears just once in this brilliant philosophical detective story. My guess is her role is enhanced in the movie.

For further reading, I recommend Patricia Guy’s profile of the late Italian author that ran last fall in PW.