Sunday, April 19, 2015

Another Sherlock Holmes -- The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Photo: Book's front and back cover, from

A good Dan Simmons book, though not one of his best (Drood and The Terror are that), The Fifth Heart has a lot going for it, and not too much against it--depending on the reader's level of patience and tolerance.

It's a lot of things, perhaps too many.  It's a thriller in a potboiler vein--like Conan Doyle's work.  (He's often mentioned but never seen.)  It's a mystery of rich people's manners and mannerisms--a la Henry James, perhaps the book's main character.  It's a mystery of deduction and induction--a la Sherlock Holmes, the book's other main character.  It's a historical adventure, like Simmons' Drood and The Terror.

But--and here's where the reader's patience and tolerance comes in--it's also a pseudo-metaphysical work, one that has the characters very self-aware, and pondering their reality: Are they themselves, or are they characters?  The one failure of all this to me is that the characters remain surprisingly productive and un-neurotic despite these philosophical quandaries.  We know that Holmes is a character, but the conceit of the novel is that he is not: He's a real person, and so is Dr. Watson.  Arthur Conan Doyle is nothing more than the editor of Dr. Watson's unfortunately melodramatic scribblings of Sherlock Holmes's adventures.  (Conan Doyle and Watson--both never seen--get a lot of verbal abuse from the many characters.)  The reader has to swallow this.

The reader is also forced to swallow the occasional interruptions of a first-person I / omniscient-writer narrator who never fully shows himself.  Is it Simmons?  Conan Doyle?  Watson?  Or someone else entirely?  It's never definitively shown; the question, in fact, is shied away from.  But we, the reader, are supposed to wonder about it, which seems to be the purpose: to cause philosophical wonder.  This is a drastic break of the fourth wall / suspension-of-disbelief, and so it needs the reader's tolerance. 

This last bit struck me as unnecessary.  The philosophical ponderings of existence, of character / person, of reality, and of unreality are all over this book, so we don't really need the intrusive first-person narrator break.  It's too much. 

Another unwanted intrusion is the much-more-rare Dan Simmons statements.  This single-handedly ruined Flashback, which was really just one long Dan Simmons diatribe.  He really tones it down here.  But you can catch a few times that he elbows his character aside for a moment so he can speak directly to the reader.  The most blatant of these was when Simmons makes his characters talk about the Pledge of Allegiance that apparently came from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  Simmons actually makes a character ask if anything interesting came of a certain meeting between characters.  That question is answered by bringing up the Pledge.  Another character says how barbaric it is to make students say it, and Holmes himself says that making them do so is something that would happen in Germany.  This is a constant Simmons break: He says something disparaging about the American education system as often as he can, in any book.  And so he does here.

However, at the end, this book is a good distraction--which Simmons himself seems to realize, as he constantly has characters refer to badly-written but entertaining mystery-thrillers, clearly referring to himself and to his own book.  This book, like its characters, is very, very aware of itself.  Dan Simmons is always hovering in the shadows over every page, his tongue in his cheek, pleasantly aware and happy about his own literary magic trick.

If you have the tolerance to handle these breaks--which are not as avant-garde as Simmons seems to think they are--then chances are good you'll enjoy the book.  It is as meticulously researched as Simmons's historical novels always are, often to the point of approaching info-dump.  The characters are amusing, though distinct--so much so that you'll wonder why their married or friendly with each other.  The characters had all been real people, and they all get knocked around a bit verbally by the other characters and by Simmons himself.  Samuel Clemens, John Hay, Conan Doyle, President Cleveland, and especially Henry James all get some chiding, some of it quite heavy.  You'll learn more than you'd probably want about the 1893 Columbian Expedition (read Erik Larson's book about that, too), about the horse-drawn carriages of the time, about Mark Twain's foolish financial disasters, and about train schedules.

It all works somehow, and you'll feel like you're really there.  Whether you're able to get back there after the author intrusions and first-person fourth-wall breaks is a big question.  I was able to again suspend my disbelief, but only mostly, and only barely, while watching for the next unwanted and unappreciated break of that wall.  It didn't ruin it for me, but I could understand how it might for somebody.

I still recommend that you try.

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