The Beautiful Minds of Heroes


I remember the moment I fell in love for the first time.  He was tall and slim, with piercing grey eyes and a rather hawkish profile.  He was apt to get lost in his work at odd times, and was a selective polymath.  He was often more courteous to street sweepers than kings, and had, despite a fundamentally misogynistic attitude, a lovely gentleness with women when he chose to exercise it.  I was the ripe and discerning age of ten; he is timeless.  His name is Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s sardonic sleuth marked the beginning of a lifelong literary love affair with exceptionally intelligent men.  I don’t confuse it with intellect, so I’m not talking about professors and academics; I’m certainly not talking about reporters who “solve” cases but do real dumb things (although I have a huge mush spot for Tintin).  I’m not even talking about the men with above-average intelligence, the military operatives and entrepreneurial farmers and industrial barons.  I’m talking about heroes with bona fide brilliance, the ones who might have their share of looks but whose brains make them super, super hot.  These men are dazzling in their virtuosity.  They are also frustrating as hell, because their extreme intelligence is often compensated by extreme deficiencies.

The first such hero I encountered was Ian Thornton in Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven.  Ian is a man of extraordinary brilliance, capable of three-second sums and super-speed reading, as well as making his own fortune and organizing his own defence trial.  However, when he was sixteen a tiny emotional quirk revealed itself: His entire family died, and to prevent an emotional meltdown he locked away their memory to the point where he literally did not think of them.  Being a man of deep feeling and immense willpower, he compensates for any potential emotional wreckage by ensuring there is no wreckage.  Fifteen years later he gives his wife, Elizabeth Cameron, the same treatment when he believes she has betrayed him: No one gets a second chance from him, he says.  It takes four months of separation and a really good speech by our heroine to unlock his emotions and give her a second chance.

Two hundred and fifty years into the future, I read Naked in Death by J.D. Robb and melted for Roarke.  At first glance he seems a psychologically well-balanced individual – romantically happy, financially secure (snort), industrial/technological/athletic whiz, at home equally with presidents as with thieves, and in touch with the finer feelings in life.  But subsequent books reveal his uncertainties when it comes to family, which is where his past knocks him for a loop.  Roarke needs time to become reconciled to the idea of having family, as well as make a place for living links to his sketchy past.  So while he admires his friends’ familial bliss, he still observes with amusement rather than wistfulness, and all his brilliance can’t compensate for what is, essentially, fear.  Which means he and Eve ain’t have babies any time soon.

But the one who spoiled all others for me, the ultimate troubled genius, is Francis Crawford of Lymond (Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles).  He is the epitome of the Renaissance Man – swordsman, marksman, politician, poet, musician, orator, linguist, lover.  He is also very, very screwed up.  He hates his mother and fights with his brother.  He is recklessly addicted to adrenaline and occasionally suicidal.  He is totally self-destructive and is his own worst enemy because his greatest fear is himself.  And his presence lights the world like the dawning sun.  The woman who marries him is his equal in every way, and the one person who can complete him; that he allows himself to love her, in the end, is a miracle.

Much of the vulnerability these heroes have is emotional, which usually stems from intellectual and thus psychological isolation.  Add to that the fact that they’re strong-willed and stubborn, and sparks are guaranteed to fly when they’re paired with the right woman.  My childhood hero, Sherlock Holmes, got bored so easily he relied on artificial mental stimulation courtesy of 7% cocaine solutions.  However, his new wife, in Laurie R. King’s superlative Mary Russell series, keeps him suitably occupied, and there is no doubt that between the pair of them he’ll get all the stimulation he needs, mental or otherwise.

In the clip from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Lady Thiang sings her love for a brilliant but immensely difficult man.  He is visionary and conservative; he is stubborn, and he is generous; he charms you, and he hurts you.  Yul Brynner’s King of Siam is a mass of contradictions, and so it is for most gifted people.  After all, nature lives in a constant search for homeostasis and stability – action versus reaction, radioactive versus inert, summer versus winter.  But exceptional intelligence comes at a price because no can have it all.  And in romance novels, underlying the basic attraction of an exceptional man is the most appealing and romantic thing of all: The knowledge that he will be paired with an equally exceptional woman.  Elizabeth Cameron, Eve Dallas, Phillippa Chamberlain, Mary Russell – different women all, and I would be honoured to call each one a friend.

The brilliant man is the ultimate romance fantasy because he is inherently incomplete.  He yearns for completion; he longs, however unconsciously or unwillingly, for his other half.  In other words, he’s the perfect romance hero.

- Jean AAR

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26 Responses to The Beautiful Minds of Heroes

  1. skrabs says:

    My fave type of hero! Whilst I’m not a big fan of Roarke, I fell in literary love with Lymond the second I laid eyes on him – or rather the point in Game of Kings where I actually realized what was going on (:

    Might I add C.S Harris’ St. Cyr to the list and Black Silk’s Graham?

  2. RobinB says:

    I also think that an intelligent man makes the best kind of hero (in a romance or any other genre of fiction). And I agree that Francis Crawford best exemplifies this type of character! However, a small correction, if I may. In the Lymond Chronicles, the original surname of Philippa Crawford is Somerville, not Chamberlain. No, I don’t have an encyclopedic memory, but Dorothy Dunnett very thoughtfully put a list of characters at the start of all of her books, and needless to say, the Lymond series is on my keeper list!

  3. Egohsa says:

    I LOVE this kind of hero. I just read all of the “In Death” books and I’m madly in love with both Eve Dallas and Roarke. Now you’ve got me intrigued about the Lymond Chronicles (in fact, I’ve just requested all of them from my local library…). But yes.

  4. Anon says:

    Lord Peter Wimsey! Jamie Fraser! Miles Vorkosigan! Dag! Wyatt Bloodsworth! …I could go on and on.

    My favorite keeper romances feature strong intelligent men with equally strong and intelligent women. That’s what is satisfying!

  5. MaryK says:

    Oooh, Sherlock Holmes! It’s been ages since I read the stories, but I love the TV series with Jeremy Brett. Tall, dark and handsome is all well and good; but intelligence trumps them. If it’s not there, I start losing interest.

  6. Absolutely have to agree with you — I have a total weakness for the strong, intelligent hero. In fact, I ended up writing two Sherlock Holmes books because of my attraction to “the best and wisest man I have ever known” — and the men who have portrayed him in film…including Robert Downey Jnr. Phew!

    Have you ever noticed that some men look quite ordinary, but when they put on a pair of glasses, the attraction factor steps up tenfold?

    I’m afraid that brains will always beat brawn as far as I’m concerned.

  7. Susan/DC says:

    Totally agree about the chemical spark that brilliant men can create. Another such hero to add to your list is Julian Kestrel, from the mystery series by the late Kate Ross. Only four books, and I still mourn the fact that there will be no additional chances to encounter his quicksilver mind. Loretta Chase has also written some appealing, charismatic brilliant heroes, such as le Comte d’Esmond, but then most of her heroes appeal to me, even Rupert Carsington, who most definitely is not brilliant.

    I’ve enjoyed the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. However, I like them for how King shows the changing world of the early 20th C and her portrayal of Mary and her brilliance. The relationship is fine when I view it as two intellectual partners solving a mystery; when it hints at the physical aspects of their marriage the 40-year age difference squicks me out.

  8. I’ll have to look up le Comte d’Esmond. He’s a new one for me… Thanks for the heads-up, Susan.

  9. Lynda X says:

    I’ve looked up C S Harris, but couldn’t find her. Is she Charlene?
    What book should I start with about St Cyr?

  10. Tracy Grant says:

    What a wonderful post, Jean. To me intelligence is the sexiest quality a hero can have. I fell madly in love with Peter Wimsey at fifteen and with Lymond eighteen. I loved the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, but I confess I didn’t actually read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories until after I discovered King’s Mary Russell series, which I adore. I particularly love the intellectual partnership of a couple who are both brilliant, and Holmes and Russell are a wonderful exampled (unlike Susan, I don’t have a problem with the age difference) as are Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. To the list of brilliant heroes I’d add James from Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull and Antryg Windrose from the Windrose Chronicles and Ingold Inglorian from the Darwath books, both by Barbara Hambly.

  11. Ellen AAR says:

    I loved Lord Peter Wimsey from the get go, and even more so when Harriet entered the picture. Like Lord Peter, Harriet was intelligent and they compliment each other so well. When it comes to Holmes, I confess that despite the Jeremy Brett series being so much more faithful to the stories, my heart belongs to Basil Rathbone. The stories might not be what Doyle wrote, but dear Basil will always be THE Holmes to me.

  12. Susan/DC says:

    Lynda X,
    C.S. Harris is Candace Proctor. If the link below works, it will take you to her website; if not, just copy and paste the address into your browser. You can then access information about the St. Cyr series as well as the romances and other books she’s written.

    As for the Russell/Holmes books, I know this is one of my personal hot buttons and that it doesn’t bother others at all. I very much enjoy the books when I think of them as two minds bound together and sparking off each other’s brilliance, but when any romantic aspect is hinted at, I skim over those parts (to be sure there aren’t many, so it’s not a difficult task). I think my dislike is my inability to separate what happens so often in Real Life, where older women become invisible and are often overlooked or discarded for younger models. It’s not that Holmes fits that trope, but I’ve now such an ingrained dislike for large age differences (whether May-December or December-May) that I avoid it if I can. Plus, just think how people would look askance if Mary were 60 and Holmes 20 — older men get cheered while older women become the butt of cougar jokes. Anything more than ten years (I like to think both H/H could at least be in the same decade at some point) is not romantic to me. End of rant, and, as I said, YMMV.

  13. annaR says:

    I’m with you, Jean. I’d like to also add Brisbane from the Deanna Raybourn “silent” series.

    To Susan, I’d like to second her sadness at the loss of the julian Kestral books of Kate Moss. I vote for Deanna Raybourn to take up this character and finish out the story until Phillipa grows up enough to match with him.

  14. Caryl says:

    I adored Francis Crawford in DD’s Lymond series, and for years my dream was that some far-sighted studio would option the books and make a 6-part film. However, I have great difficulty imagining any current actor who could do Lymond properly from 22 to 30. Dunnett said she imagined Peter O’Toole in the role, which may have been an excellent choice when the books were written, but I don’t think anyone nowadays sees O’Toole as drop dead gorgeous.

    Also, another brilliant and appealing hero, Jervaulx from Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm (had to pull my copy to check the spelling).

  15. Nana says:

    I’ll add two television favorites in this category: the brilliant Hugh Laurie as House (maybe even Hugh Laurie himself!) and David Duchovny as Mulder on The X-Files. Genius, troubled characters. SO much fun to watch.

  16. Jean Wan says:

    RobinB – Yes, when I wrote the article I knew there was something wrong with Philippa’s name, but I forgot to edit before submitting it. Thank you for correcting!

    Lymond – Peter O’Toole is EXACTLY how I think of him. And he is all manner of drop-dead gorgeousness.

    I’ve heard really good things about the Deanna Raybourn series, and she’s definitely on my list.

    Add another mourner to Julian Kestrel. I discovered Kate Moss with the last book, and when I wanted to find the next few books I was heartbroken to find out she’d passed away.

  17. Pingback: Tracy’s News & Gossip » Blog Archive » Really Smart Heroes — Brains Over Brawn Is Better.

  18. Tracy Grant says:

    Nana, Fox Mulder is one of my favorite heroes. Brainyness, empathy, and a tortured past. And I love the interplay between him and Scully. As I said above, I love romantic intellectual partnerships.

    Like Jean, I always saw Lymond and Peter O’Toole. (Particularly watching “Lawrence of Arabia”). And I do think of him a drop dead gorgeous!

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  20. Ell Lucia says:

    I need both the hero AND the heroine to be fairly smart to enjoy the book……what has been knocking me back lately though is the hero that you would never expect to melt your socks. Fay Robinson’s A Man Like Mac made me fall for a man in a wheelchair. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series made me crazy for a man who is really short and not especially good looking……….and his father too. Yow! When an author can make somebody you would likely overlook that hot, she has really done something great, and not just in her fiction….she has also widened her readers eyes, and hearts just a little.
    Quick note to Anon: I adore every single hero you mentioned except Wyatt Bloodworth – who is he and where can I find him? Yum yum.

  21. Kaia says:

    Quick note to Anon: I adore every single hero you mentioned except Wyatt Bloodworth – who is he and where can I find him? Yum yum.

    Anon: Wyatt Bloodworth is from Linda Howard’s To Die For and Drop Dead Gorgeous.

    And Jean, thanks for the post…love, love, love the brainy heroes. I’ll take one any day over the brawn. And as for Lymond, its like Jamie; no mortal man could play the role to our satisfaction. The beauty of fiction…

  22. Pingback: Really Smart Heroes — Brains Over Brawn Is Better. | Tracy Cooper-Posey

  23. Evie Baynard says:

    Loved Christopher in One Forbidden Evening – Jo Goodman what a hero will check out the Lymond novels

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