Thursday, April 9, 2015

Holmes and James are on the case

The Fifth Heart is a mashup of history and mystery with a dash of metafiction, as the award-winning and masterful Dan Simmons puts Sherlock Holmes to the grindstone on a cold case in 1893 America.  Holmes is having a bit of an existential crisis, having used his exemplary deductive powers to conclude that he may in fact be fictional.  (The scene where he explains this conclusion is quite funny, as you may imagine.)

And Holmes, real or not, is not alone.  He's joined by a collection of historical contemporaries like the witty Samuel Clemens, aggressive young Theodore Roosevelt, and of course, writer Henry James, who serves despite himself as a de facto Watson.

The case is the apparent death by suicide of Clover Adams in 1885.  Adams, an accomplished photographer and the wife of writer Henry Adams, swallowed a vial of photographic developing chemicals following months of grief over the death of her father.  This is historical fact, but Simmons' Holmes does not let it lie, having been paid by her brother to discover the truth behind the surface.

In a case that comes to enfold the plotting of Professor Moriarty (also possibly fictional) and the threatened assassination of not one but numerous world leaders, Holmes and James follow the trail from Boston to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, meeting with more well-known historical figures along the way.

I was initially afraid The Fifth Heart would be dry and boring, because Henry James is a bit of stick-in-the-mud on the surface.  However, Simmons makes it work, switching back and forth from James to Holmes to provide a diversity of viewpoint and add tension.  Holmes loves to needle James, bringing out a side of the repressed writer that James had forgotten was there.  The book engages the reader by the clever plot, the historical detail, and the tongue-in-cheek depictions of historical figures and attitudes.  I must admit, I have been mightily amused, and recommend it to Simmons fans, Holmes fans, and fans of literary mystery.

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