When Henry James Met Sherlock Holmes

The Fifth Heart: A Novel, by Dan Simmons, (Little, Brown and Company), 624 pages, release date 24 March, 2015

Sprawling would be a good adjective to describe Dan Simmon’s The Fifth Heart—so long as one is willing to embrace the idea of intellectual sprawl. This novel attempts to do many things at once and, for the most part, succeeds.

Like many recent novels, The Fifth Heart makes use of Sherlock Holmes’ missing years following his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls to place Holmes in a situation quite unlike any found in the original Conan Doyle titles. Here the unusual setting is literary America shortly before the opening of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. Instead of Watson, Holmes has Henry James for a sidekick. Other well-know characters include Henry Adams, Samuel Clemmons, and Theodore Roosevelt.

There are two mysteries at the heart of this novel: the suicide (or was it?) of Henry Adams’ wife a number of years previously and a world-wide anarchist plot set to coincide with the opening of the Exposition. The former mystery is better developed in terms of the ways in which it communicates the logic and emotions of the novel’s various characters. The second is more richly plotted and more effectively resolved at the novel’s end.

Simmons alternates between three narrative points of view (all presented in third person): there’s an omniscient-Holmes viewpoint, an omniscient-James viewpoint, and a philosophical author-of-this-particular-novel viewpoint. At times, the shifts into these different voices—particularly the third—jar, but the richness they add to the novel more than compensates for such infelicities.

I just wrote that there are two mysteries at the heart of this novel, but there’s actually a third as well: the question of human existence. How do we know we exist? To what extent are we our own creations? To what extent are we the creations of others? The Holmes-James pairing is ideal for exploring such questions. Holmes has become convinced that he is a fictional character; James meanwhile, a creator of fictions, is also his own greatest creation.

All these riches make the book a pleasure on many levels. It offers a workable pair of mysteries; an interesting new twist in Holmesian literature; documentation of a time of wide gaps between rich and poor in the U.S.; and a genuinely interesting, multi-voiced reflection on the nature of self. When you need a big novel to sink into, one that you can approach from a philosophical point of view or for pure entertainment, The Fifth Heart will serve you well.