|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on September 28, 2016 at 12:30 AM|
#1: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Unfortunately, we lost Professor Eco earlier this year. Even before we consider the greatness of his masterpiece, how could you not root for a writer like Umberto Eco? Some authors have success with almost no effort. Michael Crichton (another great storyteller that we lost too soon) wrote his first best-selling mystery to pay medical school bills - the concept that many struggling authors can't find a publisher was lost of him. (And damn it if the book he dashed off to pay bills isn't great - but it is. A Case of Need won the Edgar for best mystery in the 1960s and will come up in my next blog that reviews each novel that won the Edgar and advises you, the reader, which ones don't deserve their current obscurity...)
Not Eco, who was almost 50 when he published his first mystery. Even his family name supposedly refers to the fact that an ancestor was a foundling - it is thought that Eco was an acronym for ex caelis oblatis, or gift from the heavens. But at nearly 50, this obscure though brilliant and hilarious expert in symbols and language wrote a mystery that successfully blended real themes of the study of language with expertly crafted suspense and brilliant characters. And I also sympathize with the writer who has a masterpiece in his first go-round and then has (like so many of us do) trouble matching that success. I've read four or five of his later novels - The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is my favorite and is one of the most thought-provoking explorations of human memory I've ever read - but it isn't The Name of the Rose. But what is?
The mystery follows Brother William of Baskerville, a deliberate reference to Sherlock Holmes, who is brought in from England to get to the bottom of some deadly events taking place in a monastery in Italy in 1327. Quite a number of murders follow, as well as an Inquisition, and the driver of the crimes turns out to be a lost work of Aristotle that praises laughter and is considered dangerously subversive by dark forces in the monastery that consider seriousness and suffering to be the essentials of faith. Broither Baskerville was played memorably by Sean Connery in the excellent movie version also starring Christian Slater - my favorite example of a fine adaptation that nonetheless changed important plot points, and the movie was right for the movie and the book was right for the book.
I hope you agree that The Name of the Rose is great, but you might be thinking, greater than The Hound of the Baskervilles and Murder on the Orient Express? Obviously, that is heady company, so why do I put TNOTR first of all time? Well, the plot is just as fiendish as the best of Christie and Conan Doyle (and Martin Cruz Smith, to name the other great plotter). Eco writes as well as the great writers, Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler. Name of the Rose is longer than the other two, and it never drags. In fact, I think I read it in two days. And the stakes are higher - the killer intends not only to murder his contemporaries but to oppress a culture. And Eco succeeds in recreating a time in history that most readers know only as abstract facts, and he creates its vividly.
Categories: Vladimir's Top 20 Mysteries