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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
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
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
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
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
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
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