Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Novelist Henry James seems like an unlikely partner to fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Dan Simmons pairs them in his novel The Fifth Heart. James provides Holmes with access to the inner circle of American politics, where Holmes investigates the death of Clover Adams, wife of historian Henry Adams. Together, they thwart an attempt to assassinate President Grover Cleveland at the opening of the Chicago Columbian Exhibition.

In some ways, Simmons draws from the weakest of genre writing, such as the fortunate happenstance of James and Holmes meeting on the bank of the Seine, where the story begins. Simmons writing in this style is not weak, though. He also writes in more literary style, though not a densely written as James’ novels, and uses the likes of upper-class dinner parties to explore social customs and mores.

One of the ways Simmons creates a deep sense of the setting is by constantly dropping names. Many of the characters in the book, or their real counterparts, were famous or well-connected in their day and actually knew each other, such as Adams, the Hays, James, and Samuel Clemens. They also knew, or knew about, a lot of other famous or well-connected people, so the discussion of all these names seems natural. I started jotting down the names, and I recorded more than 100 (some are listed below). Some were fictional (like Hercule Poirot), but many were real people.

On the whole, the novel is a good adventure full of interesting characters. Simmons goes a little deep into philosophy in a consideration of what it means to be a real person, or the potential reality of fictional people (Holmes suspects he may be fictional). The book can be enjoyed without sweating that point.

In a sense, all the characters in the book are fictional, even if they are based on real people. The Holmes of this novel describes the symptoms that indicate he may be fiction, such as the fog he experiences between adventures, and the James of this novel experiences the same thing. Of course, many of us experience arriving home from work and having almost no recollection of driving, so some fogginess may be a natural part of memories and the way we form them (or don’t form them).

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Simmons, Dan. The Fifth Heart. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.

Irene Adler [fictional]
Montague Druitt (suspected of being Jack the Ripper)
Mycroft Holmes [fictional character]
Sherlock Holmes [fictional character]
Sebastian Moran [fictional character]
James Nolan Moriarty [fictional character]
Hercule Poirot [fictional character]