They’re sometimes called ‘Renaissance people,’ or polymaths. They’re experts in several, sometimes very different sorts of fields, and that can make them fascinating. In real life, people such as Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin have been called ‘Renaissance people.’ I’m sure you could think of others, too.
There are, arguably, also such people in crime fiction. The trick in creating them, of course, is to balance that variety of expertise areas with credibility. No-one can really do it all, or really knows it all. So, it can be a challenge to create such characters and make them appealing.
One such character is arguably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Not only is he an expert in chemistry, but he’s also well-skilled in other areas, too. Here, for instance, is a bit of Dr. Watson’s summation (from A Study in Scarlet):
‘7. Chemistry. — Profound. 8. Anatomy. — Accurate, but unsystematic. 9. Sensational Literature. — Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. 10. Plays the violin well. 11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. 12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.’
That’s a wide variety of skills, and fans of these stories will know that Holmes uses those skills at different times. What’s interesting, though, is that there are some areas in which he has very little knowledge. He knows nothing of literature or philosophy, and little of politics. In fact, Holmes himself says that he devotes his attention only to knowledge that’ll help him in his profession. It’s an interesting mix of skills and lack of knowledge.
Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey can tell you that he has a wide and quite varied set of skills. Along with his ability to deduct and solve mysteries, he’s got many rare books, and is somewhat of an expert in that field. He also knows his way around wine. And that’s not to mention his skills as a change ringer (right, fans of The Nine Tailors?). Those who’ve read Murder Must Advertise can also vouch for his skills on the cricket field. In fact, some readers have found Wimsey tiresome, in part because he’s good at so very much. Whether you’re in that group or not, there’s no doubt that Wimsey has a lot of expertise in different areas.
So does Rex Stout’s Nero Wole. He is, as fans know, a brilliant detective. His skills at deduction are impressive. But any fan of Wolfe knows that he is also thoroughly knowledgeable about orchids of all kinds. He can discuss the most minute detail of orchid raising with the best-informed experts. And, although, orchids are his particular passion, he also knows other things about gardening. And I couldn’t discuss Nero Wolfe without mentioning his thorough knowledge of gourmet food. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on food, and several of the Wolfe mysteries feature his adventures among the gourmet greats (e.g. Too Many Cooks). What’s interesting about Wolfe, though, is that there are also things he’s not mastered quite so well. As Archie Goodwin is happy to point out, Wolfe has his limitations. He may be a ‘Renaissance person,’ but that certainly doesn’t make him perfect.
You could also argue that Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a “Renaissance person.’ She is a forensic accountant who, as the series begins, works for a Hong-Kong based company run by Chow Tung, whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ The company works on behalf of people who’ve been bilked out of money (sometimes a great deal of it), and are desperate to get that money back. Lee’s job is to track the missing money down. And that means she has to be able to follow a financial trail. So, as you can imagine, she’s an expert in accountancy. Lee is also (again, not surprisingly) an expert on computers and cyber-activity. Along with that, Lee is an expert in martial arts. That’s probably not a bad thing, considering the danger she often encounters in the course of her work. Whether she’s too ‘over the top’ will likely depend on the reader’s point of view and taste. But she’s certainly skilled in a lot of areas.
And then there’s Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s Reema Ray. She’s a PI who, as the series starts, has her own business in Calcutta/Kolkata. She’s studied several aspects of criminology; in fact, she almost became a police officer. But she has other skill sets, too. Her small business isn’t immediately successful, so she has to also consider other ways of making ends meet. She is, therefore, a journalist – a writer for a lifestyle magazine called Face. Another area in which Reema has some expertise is in gourmet food. She’s not only an enthusiastic cook (mostly baking) herself, but she also is quite familiar with different sorts of cooking styles, spices and so on. Part of that expertise comes from her own interest; part comes from what she learns through her lifestyle writing and reporting. This doesn’t mean she’s all-knowing or perfect, though. She has her share of weaknesses and vulnerabilities as we all do.
And that’s the challenge with ‘Renaissance’ characters. It can be tricky for an author to endow them with several areas of expertise, and still keep them credible. No-one’s perfect, and that includes people who have a wide variety of skills. And when characters are too expert to be credible, this can quickly get tiresome. Still, a ‘Renaissance’ character can be interesting.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Midnight Oil.