Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Review of The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

The (imaginary) line between so-called genre fiction and literary fiction is a contentious subject for some. Literary fiction rarely makes a comment save indirectly, while a certain portion of genre enthusiasts dust off their pitchforks over perceived lack of accolades and recognition. The former tips its cap when humanist concerns make themselves known, while the latter storms “Why not us?!?!” Working with a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Henry James, Dan Simmons aims to get to the bottom of the matter—via story—with 2015's The Fifth Heart.

The grief of his sister's death not fading away, add to that the lack of book sales, Henry James decides to end it all walking the Seine one evening. But before making the jump, he is interrupted by a man. The man is Sherlock Holmes, and he has something to offer James: a role by his side in the investigation of the supposed suicide of Clover Adams. James relents, and joins the famous detective for trip to Washington D.C. and into late 19th century American history. When Moriarty rears his ugly head - as well as Holmes' past, things get serious, fast, and its up to James and Holmes to get to the bottom of the case.

Without the use of many hyphens, it's impossible to put a label on The Fifth Heart. Certainly part murder mystery, certainly part biography, certainly part meta-examination of the relationship between literary and “genre” fiction, it's 100% certainly also historical fiction. Simmons making sure that the research he did has its place, a significant portion of the novel is devoted to the lives of famous American writers, historians and major cities. Mark Twain, New York, Henry Adams, and Chicago all play big roles. If the reader is not interested in a large amount of history, as integrated into the novel as it may be, don't invest. Where Conan Doyle gave only the details necessary for story, Simmons goes much further—to the point I would put 'historical fiction' at the head of the hyphen line.

But beyond history, The Fifth Heart is an ambitious novel in its literary aims: to plumb the relationship between so called literary fiction and fiction which goes under numerous guises—bestseller, mass market, mainstream, popular, general, and genre fiction. In doing this, Simmons puts one of the giants of literary fiction, James, alongside one of the most famous characters from fiction full stop, Sherlock Holmes. Both concrete elements of the story’s reality, Simmons proceeds to blur the lines between realist fiction and fiction intended more for entertainment.

And he does it in mostly intelligent fashion. While still mostly larger than life, Holmes is also rendered as a living, breathing human. Where his daily life, including his vices, occur off stage in Doyle’s stories, in Simmons's story the reader is given full view. Sneaking, acting, shooting heroine, lazing in his domestic mess, love affairs—Holmes comes across as a fallible person—brilliant, but fallible. Conversely, James' melancholic nature, while likewise given 3D treatment, is given a shot in the arm (no pun intended) by Holmes' adventures.

And that would seem to be the main idea of the novel. Literary fiction maintains value for the manner in which is interrogates existential and sociological concerns, whereas “genre” fiction is the spice of life—that little bit of something we need to keep things colorful and interesting. Likely because I share the same belief, the message strikes a reasonable balance.

In the end, The Fifth Heart is in the very least a unique novel for the manner in which it mixes fiction with realia through familiar characters and people. The reader's appreciation of the novel, however, will likely hinge on how much historical content they are looking for, or willing to work with. There is a lot. Does Simmons bring to life any of Conan Doyle's magic in terms of the mysteries requiring solving, I would say mostly yes. Simmons' style is quite different, but if you boil the mysteries down to their milestones and grand reveals, I would say there is some comparison. Simmons takes a liberty here and there to suit the realist aspect of the narrative, but it fits. You may never read “A Scandal in Bohemia” the same again...

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