03 May 2015

Books: The Fifth Heart By Dan Simmons (2015)

Dan Simmons started his writing career penning novels in the horror genre, tales like his 1985 debut Carrion Comfort. But while he wrote other books like A Winter Haunting, Summer of Night, and Song of Kali, he turned to science fiction in 1989 with his critically acclaimed Hyperion Cantos and IIium/Olypos books. He's also written a mystery series under the name of Joe Kurtz. In 2007 he began taking on historical fiction, starting with The Terror, a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin's doomed attempt of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to force the Northwest Passage in 1845–1848. In the novel, Franklin and his crew are plagued by starvation and scurvy and forced to contend with mutiny and cannibalism, but they're also being stalked across the Arctic landscape by some sort of monster. He followed that up with 2009's Drood, which was about the final five years of Charles Dickens life as struggled to finish what would be his last (and never finished) book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The novel is narrated by Dickens' friend, novelist Wilkie Collins. Like The Terror, the plot mixes fiction and biographical facts, but because Collins spent a good number of years under the influence of opium, and it's derivative, laudanum, author Simmons gave us an unreliable narrator so long time fans of Dickens could not take umbrage with the acts that take place in the book. 
I've read both of the books, and enjoyed them. I skipped over, but still own, Simmons 2011 novel Black Hills and his 2013 Abominable (which I don't own, but still want to read). Both of those books continued his current run of mixing fiction with history. Which leads us to his latest novel The Fifth Heart
I admit I'm not a Sherlock Holmes fan and have never read a Henry James novel, but the idea of the Great Detective getting a Portrait of a Lady author mixed up in a murder mystery that spans London, New York, Washington, and Chicago was too tempting to pass up. Plus, with my fondness for history, Simmons books are always a fun read. 
It's London in1893, and a despondent Henry James has decided to end his life. But as he stands on the precipice between life and the undiscovered country, he discovers he's not the only one under the bridge contemplating their demise that night. Indeed, it appears that Sherlock Holmes (whom James always assumed was a fictional construct) is waiting for him. Holmes convinces Henry James that they need to travel to America to solve a mystery because James is a well know friend of the family. The murder mystery part begins, actually in 1885 with the suicide death of Clover Adams, wife of the esteemed historian Henry Adams -member of the Adams family that has given the United States two Presidents. Clover's death appears to be more than it at first seemed; the suspected foul play may also involve matters of national importance. Holmes is currently on his Great Hiatus -his three-year absence after Reichenbach Falls during which time the people of London believe him to be deceased. But apparently, Holmes has faked his own death because, through his powers of ratiocination, the great detective has come to the conclusion that he is a fictional character. This leads to serious complications for James -for if his esteemed fellow investigator is merely a work of fiction, what does that make him? And what can the master storyteller do to fight against the sinister power -possibly named Moriarty- that may or may not be controlling them from the shadows?
Once again, Dan Simmons takes us on journey into the past, mixing real history with fiction. We get another unreliable narrator -by the fact that we never learn who is actually writing the book. Well, obviously it's Simmons, but we get another writer who jumps in once in a while, one who is never identified (is it Simmons? Henry James? Arthur Conan Doyle? John Watson?). Still, the book reads like a buddy comedy film at times as well, which I actually think makes the narrative work better than his previous journeys into the historical fiction genre. It's a long book, well over 600 pages and while dense with real history, you cannot help but like the cantankerous Henry James, who ends up being the perfect foil for Holmes antics. It's also fun when we meet real life figures like Teddy Roosevelt (very bullish) and Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain (and whom I pictured asactor Jerry Hardin, who played a version of Twain the Star Trek: The Next Generation 2-part episode Time's Arrow. There is also a visit to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the same one featured in Erik Larson's nonfiction book The Devil in the White City.
We do get a bit of metaphysical antics about whether Holmes is real person, who's life has been fictionalized by author John Watson and published by his editor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Strand. There is also some "meta" aspects to as well, and up until Holmes mentioned Hercule Poirot, I was going to give the novel the benefit of the doubt. This book also made me think of the classic short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge at the beginning. 
Still, out of all his recent historical fiction books, this was the breeziest of them all and one many -including Sherlock Holmes fans- will enjoy. 

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