Umberto Eco, who has died aged 84, was a polymath of towering cleverness. His novels, which occasionally had the look and feel of encyclopedias, combined cultural influences ranging from TS Eliot to the Charlie Brown comic-strips. Linguistically technical, they were at once impishly humorous and robustly intellectual. For relaxation, Eco played Renaissance airs on the recorder, and read dictionaries (he was a master of several foreign languages).
Eco’s first, watershed novel, The Name of the Rose, was published in 1980. An artful reworking of Conan Doyle, with Sherlock Holmes transplanted to 14th-century Italy, the book’s baggage of arcane erudition was designed to flatter the average reader’s intelligence. In some ways, as Eco was the first to admit, his medieval whodunnit was upmarket Arthur Hailey with ingenious modernist fripperies. Subsequently translated into 30 languages, it sold more than 10m copies worldwide, and was made into a film starring Sean Connery as the monk-detective, William of Baskerville.