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Onyx reviews: The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 03/08/2015

Sherlock Holmes has several mysteries to contend with in The Fifth Heart. Two years ago, he was asked to discover who is sending notes to members of the eponymous group on the anniversary of Clover Adams' apparent suicide seven years ago, missives that claim she was, in fact, murdered. His client was Clover's brother, recently himself a suicide. Holmes also has to collaborate with various law enforcement agencies, many of them in their infancy, to stop a plot by anarchists to murder the American president. 

Holmes is in a despondent state when the book opens on the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1893. He has been examining the conflicting details in Watson's accounts of his adventures and his own shifting memories, and has been beset by existential angst. He has no recollection of what he does "between stories," and there are sufficient contradictions and inconsistencies in Watson's stories to cause him to believe he is a work of fiction. 

He's not the only person contemplating suicide that rainy evening. Author Henry James is also about to cast himself into the Seine. His work has not been selling well, he lives in the shadow of his much more successful older brother, and he is carrying his beloved sister's ashes, trying to decide where best to scatter them. Oddly, though Holmes is in disguise as a Scandinavian explorer, James recognizes the detective immediately. The two had met at a social event in London four years previously, a party attended by such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw and...Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

When Holmes tells James his theory that he is "some ink-stained scribbler's creation," James thinks he's gone mad. Either that or the man who is presenting himself as the intrepid Jan Sigerson is an imposter. However, he's fascinated by the concept of a person doubting his existence, which might be fodder for a future work.

Holmes, who has recently turned to heroin instead of cocaine or opium, cajoles James into accompanying him to America, a country the future author of The Turn of the Screw has abandoned as inferior. Why is Holmes not accompanied by his faithful sidekick, John Watson, on the adventure that takes him to Washington and Chicago? For one thing, Watson believes—as does the rest of the world— that Holmes died two years ago while grappling with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Holmes admits to James that he faked his death and made up Moriarty. Then there's that whole "fictional" vs. "real" conundrum. And where does Arthur Conan Doyle fit into the equation? Is he Holmes' and Watson's creator, or is he Watson's agent and editor?

In D.C., the two men socialize with many of James' old friends while Holmes digs around in their lives. Many familiar names from Holmes' past enter the fray, too, including "the woman," Irene Adler, and Sebastian Moran, the second most dangerous man in London. Simmons plays fast and loose with these characters, adding to and changing Holmes' history at will. After all, if Conan Doyle couldn't keep his facts straight, why should Simmons be beholden to them? The known details are Watson's sensationalized fabrications, as Holmes is quick to point out.

When it comes to "real" people in his books, though, Simmons is scrupulous about the details. He never has them doing things that contradict the known facts. He sticks to interstitial periods in the historical record, when these figures' moves are undocumented. He conscripts many of the movers and shakers of D.C. society into his story, though not all of them fare well under his lens. Teddy Roosevelt, in particular, comes off as a bigoted buffoon. Other notable figures encountered include Samuel Clemens (Holmes advises him to wear white to distinguish himself). Holmes is responsible for getting the Secret Service to protect the president, and he has a passing familiarity with a promising Belgian police officer by the name of Poirot. It should come as no surprise that he knows the real identity of Jack the Ripper.

The crisis featuring President Cleveland is legitimate business, but in some ways it's also a McGuffin that allows Simmons to deconstruct and reconstruct the Holmes stories, criticize Conan Doyle's writing skills, expound on how illogical and absurd some of the Holmes stories are, and make comments about the nature of fictional characters. There are times when Holmes and James feel like they are being moved around with no greater motivation than the need to have them doing certain things, like puppets in a play, reciting rehearsed dialog. There is also a lengthy discourse on the difference between the "I" (the active personality) and the "me" (the aspect of the personality that reflects on these actions), inspired by James' brother's work.

Along the way, James comes up with the idea for his most famous work and gets in trouble when he pursues leads on his own. He is a reluctant Watson, threatening to throw in the towel any number of times to head back to his beloved London, but Holmes always manages to convince him to change his mind and see the mission through to the end. Simmons also flirts with James' sexuality without delving in too deeply. 

As per usual, Simmons infuses the book with his extensive historical research, occasionally sacrificing momentum to stuff it all in. At one point, he seems to making fun of himself, when a character answers a simple question with a page-long, detailed response that has Holmes and James shaking their heads. He also links the book with Black Hills, which is set in the same era, and gives Holmes a new backstory involving Deadwood.

The Fifth Heart can be read in any number of ways. It is an adventure novel, with a tense confrontation with a ruthless killer at the opening of the World Fair. It is simultaneously a Holmes pastiche and a deconstruction/demolition of the stories featuring him. It is a window into the interesting and extraordinary lives of a number of important mid-1890s men. It is a reflection on Henry James, a somewhat inscrutable and complex man whose legacy is irrefutable but sometimes hard to fathom since his writing can be difficult for contemporary readers. And it is, deep down, a commentary on writing itself: the way the author plays God to his characters and is cognizant of details beyond the ken of his subjects. That's a lot to pack into one book, and at 600-plus pages the novel isn't exactly a quick read, but it's a fascinating experiment.

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