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THE FIFTH HEART by Dan Simmons is a Fast Paced Fantasy/Mystery That Will Thrill Sherlock Holmes Enthusiasts

REVIEW SUMMARY: Dan Simmons, once again taking literary and historical figures and putting them into a novel, weaves an excellent blend of action, existentialism, fantasy…and dinner conversation.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Sherlock Holmes, who has deduced that he is indeed a fictional character, and Henry James meet while both are contemplating suicide. They then journey to America to solve the murder of a Washington socialite (and friend of Adams), which Holmes believes may be part of a plot to bring down world governments…and Adams believes the murder was a suicide and Holmes is delusional…and if Holmes is fictional, what does that make Adams the author?

PROS: Intermingling of historical characters; Sherlock Holmes!; Crossing the streams of other Dan Simmons novels.
CONS: Lots of dinner conversation

BOTTOM LINE: Dan Simmons seems to be enjoying himself, interweaving mentions of other books, historical characters and asides to the reader, turning  a literary novel with dinner conversations into a fast paced fantasy/mystery tome.

I had the great privilege to get a copy of this book at Dan Simmons’ book signing on the book’s release day at Houston’s great indie bookstore Murder By The Book. You would expect an author to be enthusiastic on release day, even in advance of a long book tour. But Simmons was more than enthusiastic…he was playful. His reading was of the scene of a dinner conversation, something that on the surface sounds boring, but, because of the author’s enthusiasm, was quite enjoyable.

That “playfulness” permeates this novel, with Simmons not only having fun with characters historical and fictional, but also wallowing around in his research, talking to the reader and referencing the story lines of his other books. There is, of course, a lot of Sherlock Holmes details bandied about, but Teddy Roosevelt, Samuel Clemens and other major and minor historical figures pop in and out of the story, their personalities fully imagined and on display.

Simmons mentions several of characters that inhabit his own books and fictional creations of others:

  • Wilkie Collins (the main point of view character in Simmons’ Drood) is mentioned back-handedly. “The yellow-backed books are designed to while away a boring railway trip. I see you have Collin’s The Moonstone and The Woman in White there amongst your other sensationalist novels.” (pg 113)
  • Hercule Poirot, he of Agatha Christie fame, is mentioned by Holmes as “a young and very promising new member of the Brussels police force, an inspector junior-grade…”. Simmons weaving in a fictional detective to help another fictional detective?
  • Paha Sapa, the Lakota indian from Simmons’ Black Hills novel, encounters Holmes at the Chicago World’s Fair (pg 511) and Holmes even asks the  “wise man” the main question – “how can I tell that I am real?”. In the novel Black Hills, Paha Sapa meets Holmes under one of his disguises.

The novel is divided into four parts, each of them written in a slightly different style, and interestingly the chapter headers are different as well. Part 1 named each in the form of “Chapter 22”; Part 2 gives each chapter a number and a name, such as “1 – The Damned Cross in the Stonework” (as if to mimic or mock Conan Doyle’s chapter names); Part 3, which is the shortest, uses day, date and time, such as “ONE – Thursday, April 13, 10:00am”; and Part 4 reverts to simple numbers. I habitually pay no attention to chapter names, but there was such difference here that it calls attention.

The plot focuses on Holmes’ investigation into the death of Clover Adams, wife of historian Henry Adams and related to two U.S. presidents. Clover, Henry, John and Clara Hay and Clarence King made up the Five of Hearts, a salon aimed a literary discussion which met once a week. All five were friends of Henry James, which is why Holmes drags him into his case, which is to prove that Clover’s death, called a suicide, was instead a murder. Each of the surviving Five of Hearts plus Clover’s brother had received a typed card which said “She was murdered” every year on the anniversary of her death. Clover’s brother had given this to Holmes a while back, asked him to solve the case.

Holmes is in the period when he was taking his hiatus, having faked his death during a battle with Moriarty. He masquerades as a Norwegian explorer named Jan Sigerson. Holmes believes Clover’s death, the death of a member of a prominent Washington D.C. family that lives very close to the White House, may be part of something larger.

The point of view of the novel vacillates between Holmes and James, creating an interesting contrast: James, an unmarried author who prefers living abroad rather than in America is very polite and proper; Holmes, a Brit raised in the streets, ignores protocol, takes heroin, doesn’t share all information and frequently disappears. Watching the relationship between the two of the change and evolve is was of the best written parts of this novel.

At the beginning of Part 3, Simmons crosses that boundary between author and reader (and does this at several points, the first time in Chapter 7 of Part 1) and starts the first chapter of that section with an explanation:

My plan for opening the Chicago World’s Fair part of our tale was to explain why Henry James – against all of his instincts and habits – would accompany Holmes on this part of the detective’s adventure. But the odd truth is, I don’t know why James did so.

We all know individuals who shield their thoughts better than others, but both Sherlock Holmes and Henry James have been the most difficult minds to penetrate in my long experience both of knowing people and of entering the thoughts of characters. (pg 469)

This is another example of what I reference as “playfulness”. Some may be taken about by this “crossing of the boundary” but I rather enjoyed it, and think it added to the whole “am I really a fictional character” meme.

The “am I just a fictional character” concern of Holmes’ seeps into the consciousness of the author characters Henry Adams and Samuel Clemens, providing an avenue for Simmon’s to have a very existential conversation while poking fun at himself:

Clemens rounded on him again. “But we’re God to the world and characters we create, James. And we plot against them all the time. We kill them off, maul and scare them, make them lose their hopes and dearest loves. We conspire against our characters daily…”

“What has this to do with the question of whether Sherlock Holmes is fictional?” James asked bluntly.

Clemens laughed until he began coughing again. “Don’t you see, James?” he said at last. “You and I are only minor characters in this story about the Great Detective. Our little lives and endings mean nothing to the God-Writer, whoever the sonofabitch might be.”

“It doesn’t have to be Conan Doyle,” said Clemens, his chin almost on his chest as he poured out the last of the laudanum from the bottle into the glass. “It’s almost certainly some lesser mind, lesser talent, than you, perhaps even lesser than me, certainly lesser than Conan Doyle, which is saying a lot. And it might be written thirty years hence, or fifty, or a hundred.”

“Well,” said James, trying for a light tone despite the heaviness in his heart, “at least that would mean we’re still being read thirty or a hundred years from now.” (pg 511-512)

The Fifth Heart reaffirms my classification of Simmons as one of the authors who are on my “read everything they release” list. Though not as good as Drood, nor as SF/Fantasy as the Hyperion Cantos or Illium/Olympos, The Fifth Heart delivers a well-researched, well-paced, thoroughly enjoyable novel.


About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.
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