Review of The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
Ever since the copyrights to the first batch of Sherlock Holmes stories ended some years back the market has been flooded with non-canon fiction. This time it is famed author Dan Simmons who has written a Holmesian historical epic. The author of Hyperion, The Terror and Ilium manages to impress with a story in which both historical and fictional characters take center stage. This is my Review of The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, first released back in March and thus overdue for a in-depth analysis. So what is The Fifth Heart all about?
The Fifth Heart is set in 1893 and follows Sherlock Holmes, author Henry James and a number of other historical characters in solving a murder that may have just been the start of dangerous plot. Though many historical characters are introduced in the novel, both real and fictional, the focus is placed on author Henry James and detective Sherlock Holmes. Henry James is a down on his luck author who is going through a painful time in his life after his sisters death and his brothers sudden fame while his career dwindles. A chance encounter in Paris at the river Seine in the middle of the night turns his life around. There he meets Sherlock Holmes who readily admits that just like James he was also about to commit suicide. Ever since the made-up encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls Holmes has struggled to fight the professor’s secret organization. Holmes suspects that Henry James’s friend Clover Adams did not commit suicide but was murdered. Holmes has long sought to proof that but it wasn’t until the encounter on the Seine that he has found a unique way into the late Mrs. Adams social circle. A skeptical Henry James accompanies Sherlock to Washington DC to investigate the death but quickly has to admit that suicide was unlikely.
Author Dan Simmons uses a shifting Point of View to show how both Holmes and James feel about an issue. The style mimics that of the work of the real-life Henry James in which themes such as consciousness and perception stood central, a point not missed by Sherlock Holmes. As Henry James’s narrative often discusses the deficiencies of the writing of famous authors such as himself, Arthur Conan Doyle and many others the readers receives a first-hand opinion on how to write good stories. The opinion of Henry James is of course an interpretation of Dan Simmons who also at times interrupts the story to make a comment, often with hilarious consequences which I am not sure was intentional. In the story, Henry James is not immediately impressed with any of Sherlock Holmes’s accomplishment, both real and fictional. His careful analysis of the Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Copper Beeches almost undermines his relationship as he discovers the story makes no sense whatsoever. It is Sherlock Holmes himself, in person, who agrees the stories based on his character are poor but who also convinces James of his abilities by manipulating situations.
The other major character who has a viewpoint is of course the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Holmes readily admits that he is at times not certain whether or not he is fictional. Author Mark Twain even makes a joke about that when he meets Holmes. Unlike Henry James’s narrative Holmes’s is more factual and less opinioned. The gift of detecting crimes that Holmes has is based on careful unbiased observations and taking frequent calculated risks to force a situation, much to the chagrin of his contemporaries. This along with Henry James’s not insignificant amateur gifts as a detective allows the story to move along, but it also provides a unique critique of the flawed world of 1893 filled with its overt racism, sexism and naivety. The Sherlock Holmes of The Fifth Heart is not quite the same as the one written by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is close enough for the reader to accept that the differences are due to stories written using second-hand information sources. Unlike Henry James Sherlock Holmes does feel more emotionally distant, the only topic on which he shows emotion is the death of Irene Adler who was murdered soon after the death Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, at the hands of her own son Lucan Adler.
The world of 1893 that Dan Simmons describes has been meticulously researched. This results not only in a mystery that is multi-layered but also in plenty of long expositions on whatever topic Henry James or Sherlock Holmes find pertinent. The book is at over 600 pages a considerable read, but I doubt it could have been made any shorter without a loss of logic and pacing. The original stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle had a major appeal not because of their mysteries the great detective solves, but due to the lighthearted nature of the relationship between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. As Watson is absent in this story author Henry James takes his place. It takes time for two people who have never met before to form a working relationship. Both Henry James and Sherlock Holmes also meet many historical characters with Clarence King, Samuel Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) and vice-president Adlai Stevenson being notable. Each of these three gets plenty of pages and opportunities to voice their opinion and provide an important part in the solution to the mystery. To expect Sherlock Holmes to arrive at the solution in a mere 300 pages would have been ridiculous. Thanks to Dan Simmons efforts at creating such an invigorating world, The Fifth Heart comes off as believable and unique.
Score; 10 / 10. I couldn’t find a flaw, so why not give it a 10? Just because most people are too lazy to read 618 pages does not mean I have to conform to their opinion.
A little more than a week ago this website celebrated its fourth anniversary. I have been holding a book giveaway contest. Three books will be given away on random draw. These are The fifth Heart, Star Wars Dark Disciple and Aurora. Check out the following link to enter the contest. On that page you will have to make an entry otherwise I have two lists of contenders. Good luck and I hope you enjoyed my review of The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons.
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