Umberto Eco started working on a novel that set the world's imagination on fire "prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk." The Italian author and academic who intrigued, puzzled, and delighted readers worldwide with his best-selling historical novel The Name of the Rose died at home in Milan on Friday evening after a battle with cancer, a family member tells the AP. He was 84. Author of a wide range of books, Eco was fascinated with the obscure and the mundane, and his books were both engaging narratives and philosophical and intellectual exercises. The Name of the Rose transformed him from an academic to international celebrity, especially after the medieval thriller set in a monastery was made into a film starring Sean Connery in 1986.
His second novel, 1988's Foucault's Pendulum, a byzantine tale of plotting publishers and secret sects, was successful, too—though it was so complicated that an annotated guide accompanied it to help the reader follow the plot. Eco—whose most recent novel, Numero Zero, came out last year and recalled a '90s political scandal that helped lead to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi—shrugged off critics who found him "too erudite and philosophical, too difficult," telling the Guardian in a 2011 interview that he wrote "for masochists." "It's only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things," he said. "People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged." (The death of Harper Lee was also announced on Friday.)