There are several issues with Dan Simmons’ new novel, The Fifth Heart. It’s too long for one, its 600+ pages probably a good 100-150 pages too many. Simmons has fallen too much in love with his research, slowing the book in multiple places. He drops one of the more intriguing storylines a bit too easily. And the mystery/resolution are a bit anti-climactic. That said, The Fifth Heart still works as a smart literary mix of adventure, historical fiction, and metafiction, even if it could have been better with some pruning.
The year is 1893 and Henry James, depressed over his career, his fast-approaching mid-century birthday, and the recent death of his sister is about to commit suicide by stepping into the Seine River when a man steps out of the shadows and interrupts him. The man, to James’ surprise, is Sherlock Holmes, whom James met some time back at a party when Holmes was working a case (though James didn’t know that at the time). James is even more surprised when Holmes announces his own existential dilemma — he’s come to believe he is a fictional character. Intrigued, James allows himself to be slowly dragged into Holmes’ wake, heading off with him to America and becoming on some level a new “Watson” as Holmes investigates the alleged suicide of James’ friend Clover Adams, though it turns out this is only the tip of a much larger issue, one that threatens international security.
Simmons brings in a host of historical personages, including famed historian Henry Adams (Clover’s husband), Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, John Hay, and others (not to mention a few fictional ones, such as Hercule Poirot). While I can’t say with any actual knowledge, all these characters come off as being authoritatively drawn, steeped in lengthy, detailed research. Sometimes, even perhaps often, to the detriment of narrative momentum, as Simmons’ swings off into levels of historical/biographical detail that may make some readers’ eyes swim (as they did at times with this reader). Just how faithful Simmons is to reality can be seen by how willing he is to let his historical characters come off as flawed (and in one dinner conversation, horribly racist) humans rather than (imagine this in reverb) Icons of History.
Along with a painstakingly (and even perhaps painful) researched historical novel, Simmons also has a lot of fun poking holes in poor Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing, as inconsistency after inconsistency in the Holmes’ stories is pointed out, such as how Watson’s war wound migrates around his body or how his wife’s name changes. These inconsistencies, in fact, are part of Holmes’ “evidence” for his belief that he is fictional. James’ writing doesn’t get off easily either, as several characters offer up unsolicited critiques, as Holmes himself does here:
From what they tell me, your rendering of the most exciting adventures you and I might have in America would end up with a beautiful young lady from America as the protagonist, various lords and ladies wandering through, verbal opaqueness followed by descriptive obtuseness, and nothing more exciting being allowed to occur in the tale than a verbal faux pas or tea service being late.
Holmes’ questioning of his own reality is one of the most intriguing subplots and offers up some of the most thoughtful conversation in the novel. This is not some playful consideration of the concept, but a heavily existential one, one that brings both pain and grief to Holmes:
Holmes realized that the floating horizontal elements of his cage were distinct words, giant words … written backward from his point-of-view. Holmes … stared through the imprisoning word-bars with the expression of a madman.
I only wish Simmons had done a bit more with it, especially toward the end. A more directly metafictional element arises with the book’s narrator directly addressing the reader at times, as when in that same passage quoted above, the narrator tells us, “Holmes looks at you. He sees the blurred outlines of the room or space behind you. He strains to make out your face.” Or later, when the narrator explains a sudden change in POV:
The reader needs to pardon this interruption as the narrator makes a comment here.
Perhaps it slipped your notice, although I doubt it (since it is dangerous for a narrator ever to underestimate the intelligence and observation power of readers, but at this point we have shifted point-of-view in the narrative.
If Holmes’ confusion over whether he is real or fictional is one of the more intriguing themes, grief — its weight, the way in which it ripples out over time, how it colors all — is perhaps the most compelling. Certainly it’s the most moving. Many of the characters we meet carry a heavy burden of grief, some shared, some personal, and Simmons shows a sure hand in conveying the emotion’s power. This for me was the strongest aspect of the novel, and it is this humanity and sense of compassion that washes over everything with a patina of sorrow so that what could have simply been an overly long “clever” literary pastiche becomes something much more moving and thoughtful. Which is why I still recommend The Fifth Heart despite its slow pace and sometimes frustrating digressions.