To use a cliché, this book is the educated man’s ‘Angels and Demons’. It is set in 13th century Europe and centres around the mysterious killings of monks in an abbey. An English ex-inquisitor and his novice come down to the abbey to investigate the murders. As the duo set about playing Holmes and Watson, the reader is treated to a rich background on the state of Christianity at that point, the factionalism in the Church and the politics of Europe. There are also lots of interesting diversions into topics as varied as ‘what is religion’, ‘who is a heretic’ and ‘what is love’.
The book runs its course through a one-week period. This is an important point in the abbey’s life because a meeting between emissaries of the materially inclined Pope and one of the Franciscan brothers who has been preaching poverty, has been set up. The meeting is important, as it will define the very sphere of influence of the Pope. The abbey itself is neutral ground but the murders will cast a shadow over the Abbot’s authority to manage the abbey. A shadow that everyone can do without at that crucial period. The abbey also has its own mysteries, especially the famous library, which harbours various books that are not permitted to be seen without permission. (The description of what the books contain alone will get any avid reader thirsting for such a library). The library becomes a central point, holding the key to the murders. Eventually the murders are solved, but at a great cost. Meanwhile, the meeting between the two adversaries maps out the political course of history as the book ends.
The book is one of those where you need to get past the first fifty pages. Then it takes some shape and becomes very interesting. You are eager to get to the end to see what is driving those murders but you also want to be patient enough to allow the author his pontifications on various topics and detailing of history.
This is also the kind of book where you are kicking yourself hard for not having paid enough attention to European history during high school. It would have definitely enhanced one’s appreciation of the book. However, not having the benefit of such knowledge does not in anyway detract the pleasure of reading the book.
Not a book to be read in one sitting. But definitely a good read.