The one-sentence summary of my MA might be something like this – Crime fiction is not about solving a puzzle, it is about the contest for the rights to tell the story of the crime. In the execution of the crime, the criminal leaves behind clues. Some of these clues are inevitable byproducts of the crime’s commission, some are deliberate acts intended to mislead. If the criminal is successful, the clues are interpreted in such a way that points to someone else and they escape. The discerning detective correctly interprets the clues, discarding those which don’t fit with reality, and then they gather everyone together and explain why they’re right.
The reason that narrative control enters the picture is because physical clues are far outnumbered by witness accounts. Each witness tells their version of events: who knew who, who hated who, what happened and in what order. These accounts are unreliable and so the physical evidence is marshalled to confirm or refute them. The murderer will always have his own version of the story in the mix: he is always also a witness in the investigation, however minor. Many detectives use their dramatic flair to effectively goad the criminal into making a move which gives them away, so while the physical and circumstantial evidence may be damning, most criminals in detective fiction ultimately acquiesce to their own culpability.
The film version of the Name of the Rose (and, I presume, the book too) complicates the situation by offering three different and fundamentally incompatible modes of interpreting the signs of the crime, the clues. At the centre of the story is William of Baskerville’s scientific approach – the gathering of clues, the cross-referencing of witness statements, all underpinned by an unshaken belief in the rationality of the situation. He forms a theory of the crime fairly early, I think, certainly he knows the basic shape of the truth by the time Berenger, the deviant assistant librarian, dies. This is only about half way through the story. When people think of this film, they think about this fairly conventional detective story as the plot and the point.
Yet, the film carries on quite a long time after William forms his correct theory. The reason is that William lacks, not the truth, but a way of framing his narrative that will overcome the two narratives being offered by his fellow monks. The dominant theory when William arrives, fuelled by the demented ranting of his fellow Franciscan monk Ubertino, is that the devil is literally involved. This represents not only a baffling tragedy, but a direct attack on the faith by its greatest enemy.
This theory is replaced by a second alternate to William’s rational theory – that the crimes have been committed by heretics seeking to undermine the faith and sow the seeds of damnation. This is altogether more satisfying to the monks, and calms their nerves, because human agents of the devil can be sought out and punished. The investigative approach of the inquisitor, Bernardo Gui, is almost the inverse of William’s. He too uses clues, but clues that are important for their symbolism rather than their relationship to the details of the crime. William is following the trail of a black tongue and a black finger, Bernardo is following the trail of the black cat and black cockerel: the irrefutable symbols of consorting with demonic powers.
Bernardo, in effect, creates his own clues by choosing to interpret the world in a particular way and then accept only positive confirmations of that worldview. He elicits a confession from the Hunchback Salvatore via torture, and sees no contradiction there, even though both Salvatore and Remigio offer to confess to anything he wants before he even begins his interrogations. His version of events is automatically assumed to be correct because of his position as inquisitor, and William defies him to his peril.
We have then, not the usual two, but three different interpretations of the crime, as promulgated by the criminal and each of the two detectives. Power in this case is on the side of the Inquisitor’s version – this is the version which effectively resolves the story. While William confronts the murderer, this is never acknowledged by the authorities in the fiction.
The motive for the crime too, is intimately entangled with controlling the reality that the characters experience, rather than an objective reality – the existence or not of Aristotle’s work on Comedy. Malachi’s worldview insists that such a work cannot exist, even though he physically has a copy. He engages in debate with William about the value of comedy, outright denying that the book exists in order to win the argument that comedy has no value. Once the book is revealed to his fellow monks, he murders them rather than allow that truth to come out. The murders are effectively a means of extending the argument with William – they are a reinforcement of his side of the argument. When William finds the book and solves the mystery, he is effectively winning the earlier argument: that comedy does have a value.
Detective stories are, in a formal/structural sense often regarded by critics as Comedies, because they end with an uplifting ending. Comedy here is the opposite of Tragedy in structural terms, rather than funny. Yet, by the end of the film, the situation is so serious that there is no chance of comedy itself appearing to cement William’s victory. There is only a great tragedy in the deaths of the innocent Salvatore and Remigio and the destruction both of the library and the book which was said never to exist. A Pyrrhic victory, if even that.
The whole narrative is littered with other disputes about narratives. For example, the reason that William of Baskerville is at the abbey is to debate the future of his order with representatives of the Pope. The two sides frame their arguments differently, but the central issue at stake is the essential character of the church. William’s side is arguing that the essential question is whether Christ owned the clothes he wore, while the contra position is that the question is not whether Christ was poor, but whether the Church should be poor. Neither side will allow their argument to be framed by the other.
The context of this discussion establishes a society that is deeply riven by corruption and opportunism. The world of the monastic system, rather than being essentially functional and peaceful, is shown to be dark and dangerous. This is quite a jolt from the usual idyllic setting of what this film looks like: a formal detective story of the Country Manor variety. It transfers the essential origin of guilt from an individual to society-at-large: the hard-boiled approach to criminality. It is the environment of the monks which creates all of the opportunity and motives for the crimes which are committed; a situation which William navigates, but does not challenge, just as Marlowe and Spade navigate the corrupt 1920s but only emerge instead of restoring or reforming.
The genius of The Name of the Rose is that it manages to use the clue-gathering and deductive reasoning to directly and seriously develop an argument about narratives. It thus fuses the two basic operational modes of detective stories to make a complex work whose different layers can provide different levels of satisfaction. By refusing to allow a completely tidy and resolved ending in which order is restored, it creates ambiguities which can be further explored for insights.
As a postscript here- I have obviously watched this movie several times before; I first saw it around 20 years ago. It is a film which I have enjoyed more and more as I get older and can appreciate the different things in operation. I really must get around to reading the book.