The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
It’s 1983 and Henry James the author is intent on killing himself in Paris. He has chosen drowning in the Seine as his preferred exit strategy. It’s there that he stumbles, almost literally, upon Sherlock Holmes, also intent on taking his own life in the same manner. It was three years previous that Holmes had his apparently fatal encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, but he has been in hiding since that time and has reached the end of his tether. It’s the meeting of these two that leads to a ‘great’ adventure that will test the resolve of both.
Holmes has been tasked with discovering the facts behind the alleged suicide of Clover Adams, wife of Henry whose family has given the USA two presidents. Clover’s brother had his suspicions and approached Holmes to investigate. When Holmes subsequently decides not to kill himself, he instead coerces James to accompany him to Washington to assist in his case. Henry James is a personal friend of the Adams family (which would have been more interesting if you think Fester) and reluctantly agrees.
Whilst in the US, James discovers that all is not as it would appear, with either Henry Adams or Holmes. There are unanswered questions surrounding Clover’s demise. There is also the not so inconsequential matter of a global anarchist uprising that threatens to destabilize the entire planet. Moriarty, it seems has also survived Reichenbach.
So follows a whirlwind rush through the esteemed personages in the US at that time. We get to meet Mark Twain who assists Holmes. We encounter Rudyard Kipling at a dinner party. There is Clarence King the adventurer and geologist, as well as John Hay, former private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and future Secretary of State. Both Henry James and Holmes, in disguise, stay at the home of Hay as the detective probes Clover’s death.
It should be noted at this juncture that in this story, Holmes is of course all too real. Dr Watson is also in existence with Arthur Conan Doyle assuming the role of Watson’s agent and publisher for his stories concerning Holmes in the Strand Magazine. It’s an interesting take on the concept of Holmes and one not previously encountered by Rebel Voice.
As Holmes employs various devious methods of investigation, he manages to further upset an already rattled Henry James, who is unhappy at the deception being used against his friends. It is Henry and Clover Adams, John and Clare Hay, and Clarence King who make up the Five of Hearts, an academic salon that discusses current affairs, books and anything else that tickles their fancy. Hence the title of the book.
This is a sizable tome by modern standards, 617 pages in all. It is also one of the most frustrating novels that you will ever read. Holmes is one of the great literary characters. Any story with the English detective in it should be a shoo-in for success. Sadly, The Fifth Heart manages to make a complete hames of it. It’s all over the place. Dan Simmons has clearly tried to do too much with this story. He has set out to write a mystery-thriller and would have largely succeeded if not for his second intent which was to write a historical novel. The result is a mish-mash that confuses and bores in many parts.
Holmes is fairly good in this story, but only because Holmes is good anywhere. Dan Simmons can write a tale, of that there’s little doubt. But on this occasion, he is allowed to indulge himself and subsequently runs riot. There are so many tangents in this book as to make it look like Pinhead from the Hellraiser franchise. The reader learns a lot about late Victorian USA as we track both Holmes and Henry James across Washington and Chicago. There is a wealth of information about the architecture of Washington D.C. and the layout of the World Fair in Chicago. It’s too much. A good editor would have cut this book to about half its current size.
Holmes discovers who has been sending cards to the remaining Five Hearts, but never solidly establishes why. Nor do we get any firm conclusion on whether or not Clover Adams did kill herself. As the title of the book is predicated upon this group, Simmon’s omission of this reveal is unforgivable.
In The Fifth Heart, Sherlock Holmes turns out to be working for his brother, Mycroft, in British Intelligence. The action sequences are so extreme as to make James Bond resemble the love child of Mr Bean and Theresa May. Simmons appears to have taken the Hollywood approach to Holmes where the great detective is portrayed as a stuntman of massive intellect. Robert Downey Jr’s version is enticing if a great departure from the original. Yet that is not the main problem in this novel. It’s the haphazard and fanciful way in which Holmes is depicted that will rankle fans.
Holmes is a father in this rendering. It transpires that he had an affair with the villainous actress, Irene Adler, and a son was born. The baby was then given, under threat of Holmes’ assassination, to Colonel Sebastian Moran, who raised the child and trained him in the dark arts of killing. Sherlock knew nothing of this but finds himself under threat of death from his son, Lucian. The young assassin, however, has always known who his father is and loathes him. It’s a cat and mouse battle as the two play out their rivalries across the USA. It’s nonsense. None of it makes sense; not Irene Adler’s reasons for giving up her child, nor Holmes’ seemingly callous attitude towards the son he has recently discovered he has.
Rebel Voice could reveal more of the plot, but just writing about it causes a wave of disillusion to wash over this site. It’s frustrating in the extreme that any writer should have mangled the story of Holmes in this way. Simmons has displayed what could be interpreted as considerable arrogance to have depicted Holmes as he has. This is not to say that the story of Holmes is sacrosanct. It’s not. But respect must be given to the fundamentals. A suicidal Holmes is miraculously transformed into a heroic saviour of humanity? His self-destructive intent is never again mentioned. Just when you think that The Fifth Heart is as awful as possible, it gets worse.
Moriarty turns out not to be Moriarty. Instead he turns out to be Holmes pretending to be the criminal mastermind. This ploy is invented by Mycroft in an attempt to control the inevitable global anarchist revolution. Holmes reveals all to Henry James who is flabbergasted, but not as much as the reader. Honestly, folks, it’s shocking. Holmes ends up killing his own son and apparently feels nothing afterwards. Henry James feels rejuvenated after his adventures and goes back to writing with a flourish.
The author has taken factual events (Clover Adams did die under suspicious circumstances as depicted in the book) and woven a fantastical tale around them. He has used actual people, (The Five of Hearts was a real salon) and accurately portrayed them. His attempts to use them in this novel, however, have failed miserably. There is just too much here, in addition to the extreme liberties taken with the life and character of Holmes.
If you are interested in a book that nicely and no doubt accurately depicts the homes and lives of actual characters from Washington D.C. in 1893, then this is the book for you. If you want insight into the World Fair in Chicago at that time, then pick this one up. If you would like to get to know Henry James a little then you will enjoy this story. But if you seek a great thriller with solid plotting then The Fifth Heart will not be your cup of tea. However, it must be stated with tremendous solemnity that if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you must stay away from this book as it will make you weep extravagantly, before attempting to throw yourself into the River Seine.
Sult scale rating: 3.5 out of 10. The marks here are for the historical accuracy in presenting the real-life characters, as well as depicting life in the USA in 1893. The book is informative in that respect. As a mystery-thriller it is abysmal. This is one of the greatest failures in a Holmes story. For a better take on Sherlock’s legacy try the book, Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz.
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