Renaissance Man*

renaissance-peopleThey’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.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ian Hamilton, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Rex Stout

14 responses to “Renaissance Man*

  1. You’ve enlightened me again there Margot! Nice post. Completely off piste (you know me) but did you know that the old military hospital I’m researching for my consultancy work is mentioned by Watson in the first few lines of A Study In Scarlet? Yes, Watson trained at Netley! 😀

    • Really?! That’s such an interesting connection, D.S.! Small, small world, and so few degrees of separation at times. Thanks for sharing – and for the kind words.

  2. Yes, I think that’s the differnece between Wimsey and some of the others – he doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses, and that makes him a bit annoying. I suspect Holmes knew more about literature and philosophy than he let on though, and he seemed to have a good grasp of politics when it came to missing treaties, kings of Bohemia, etc., etc. He was probably just trying not to show off to Watson, being such a modest, humble chap as he was… 😉

    • 😆 Yes, I’m sure he wouldn’t want Watson to feel uncomfortable, FictionFan! And you’re probably right that Holmes knows more than he lets on. It’s probably more useful for him to keep some of his expertise to himself. As for Wimsey, I have to admit, I’d like him better if he had a few weaknesses – and I like that series!

  3. kathy d

    Perhaps Guido Brunetti could fit into the “Renaissance” person caategory. He is excellent at police investigations, but is very cerebral in figuring out what happened. Also, he reads books on Greek and Roman history, including military history. So, he is an intellectual in some sense.
    No. He does not cook or know martial arts but he is a man of the world in terms of his thinking.
    And perhaps Danglard of the Paris police is one, too, as he is the expert on history and everything else. Others turn to him for his wisdom.
    I wish I could think of some women in this category, in addition to who is named above. One question is who reads a lot? Who studies topics involved in investigations, yet has a lot of self-taught knowledge?
    I’ve known a few “Renaissance” people in my life and realize I know a few now. One is a woman.

    • You ask an interesting question, Kathy, and one that I asked myself as I was preparing this post. And I think Danglard could qualify as a polymath. He certainly has a lot of areas of expertise. You make a well-taken point about Brunetti. He has a lot of philosophical knowledge.

  4. Fascinating and once again, something I’d never really considered – I’m not sure that I can come up with an example for you today but I did enjoy those you supplied.

  5. kathy d

    I’m thinking of contemporary women. Maybe Rachel Maddow is a Renaissance person. She knows an enormous amount about a lot of topics, reads, writes, runs a news show, yet has humor.

  6. Well, Margot, there’s always Philo Vance, whose estimate of his own excellence can hardly be matched by mere readers. His author, S. S. Van Dine, describes him this way in The Benson Murder Case:

    “Vance was what many would call a dilettante, but the designation does him an injustice. He was a man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob. Yet there was in his condescension and disdain no trace of spuriousness. His snobbishness was intellectual as well as social. He detested stupidity even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste. ”

    There are lengthy passages in most of the Philo Vance novels dwelling on his views, especially on the arts. I still enjoy the books – but it takes a fairly high tolerance level…

    • Yes, it does, Les. Vance is certainly not afflicted with low self-image, is he? He certainly had an impact on the genre, but yes, in measured doses. Thanks for mentioning him.

  7. Yes those clever-clogs types are 50% annoying and 50% good fun in my view….

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