In the rainy March of 1893, for reasons that no one understands (priarily because no one besides us is aware of this story), the London-based American author Henry James decided to spend his April 15 birthday in Paris, and there, on or before his birthday, commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine at night.
–Dan Simmons - The fifth heart - c.2015
In 1893 Henry James encounters Sherlock Holmes in Paris. But Holmes is reported to be dead, killed in a battle with Moriarty, and that’s without getting into the debate over whether or not he is a fictional character. Real or not, alive or dead, Holmes persuades James, somehow, to return to the US and help investigate the suicide or possible murder of Cover Adams, one of James’ old friends.
I think this will be my final Dan Simmons book. I really enjoyed Drood and Black Hills, and some of older books are entertaining, but I hated Flashback and thought that The Abominable really was abominable. I may try The Terror at some point because I have heard a lot of good reports about it. But this book just wasn’t very good.
It is told in four parts, with the point of view switching between James and Holmes, and sometimes an omniscient narrator/author addressing us directly, and irritatingly. But it started out on the wrong foot with me, the opening talks about Henry James about to attempt suicide, and mentions his depression, and then talks about reasons why he might possibly be depressed. As though depression is a rational result from not selling books, or something one can be reasoned out of! Sure, it can sometimes be triggered by what is going on in someone’s life, but often it just strikes and there is no logic to it, just as there is no way you can argue your way out of cancer.
So yeah, opening couple of paragraphs really didn’t welcome me to the book.
That wasn’t my only reservation with the book. I recall not enjoying the way Simmons’ likes to play with real people and real events in The Abominable and this issue also came to the fore in The fifth heart as Holmes is involved in investigating the Haymarket affair, and also is supposedly keeping the world safe from an international socialist anarchist group of German-Americans intent on killing off heads of states and… well, what they intend to do then is never really looked at. Of course they are described as anarchists, so maybe we are supposed to believe that they just want anarchy!? Show Spoiler ▼
I’d never heard of the Haymarket affair before this book, but I googled, and discovered that yes, there was a socialist protest. And yes there was violence, and a bomb killed policemen, but contrary to Holmes; deductions in the book, most of the policemen who were shot were actually hit by the bullets of other officers
An anonymous police official told the Chicago Tribune, “A very large number of the police were wounded by each other’s revolvers. … It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other. [ref]for more see the Wikipedia entry. It actually sounds like a really interesting historical event that actually had a huge impact on workers rights, here reduced to a “socialists are evil” scare tactic. [/ref]
Apart from my political issues with this use of real historical events and people I also didn’t find the book all that interesting. I didn’t enjoy the way the narrator addressed the reader every now and then, it just felt like a device that Simmons wanted to use, it added nothing to the experience of the book. It could have helped with the whole who is real and who is a fictional character, but they are all fictional, its a book, aspect of the storyline. But to be honest, apart from using the device to waffle on a bit more and bring in a character from a different Simmons book, nothing is ever really done with that thread of the story. And the story is long enough. Too long. At one point Simmons has his character of Henry James read Doyle’s books about Sherlock Holmes, and then he proceeds to spend a chapter or thereabouts giving out about the plot-holes and logical inconsistencies in the “adventures”. Simmons also has Holmes recall some advice that Doyle once gave on writing, that too much detail bores a reader, this being the reason that Watson on refers to his gun as my “trusty service revolver” or some such. This prompts Simmons to spend an age describing the make, model and all sorts of other unnecessary details about Holmes’ weapon. The whole book is weighed down with far to much detail that the reader doesn’t need. Well, this reader certainly didn’t need half of it.