Dan Simmons has done it again. With The Fifth Heart he has created another of his striking blends of fact, fiction, and magical realism that keep readers turning the pages of his long novels. This one comes in at 617 pages and will especially appeal to readers who enjoy speculative historical fiction that places literary figures in real life situations that demand they show a part of their character we can barely imagine they might have as we begin to read. This time around, it is the author Henry James who surprises himself (and us) by matching the skills and bravery of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. (I say "fictional" but a central part of The Fifth Heart's plot sees Holmes and James trying to figure out if Holmes is real...or fictional.) Throw in other real life characters like Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, John Hay, Clarence King, and Henry Adams and you have the makings for quite a make-believe romp. And Simmons delivers admirably.
It is 1893. Eight years earlier, Clovis Adams, wife of the highly regarded historian Henry Adams, is said to have taken her own life by ingesting an arsenic-based photographic developing fluid. But not everyone is convinced that the woman killed herself, and one of the skeptics has hired Sherlock Holmes to investigate her death. Now Holmes has coerced Henry James into coming to America with him so that the facts of Clover Adams's death can finally be revealed.
|Author Dan Simmons|
But not so fast, Sherlock. First we have to figure out who is trying to kill you...and why. Then we have to somehow stop the plot to throw the world into chaos by the simultaneous assassination of most of the world's top political leaders. And we have to get all of that done before President Grover Cleveland comes to Chicago to throw the switch that will complete the electrification of that city's great "White City" exposition (which came to be known as "Chicago's World Fair). The clock is ticking, Mr. Holmes.
I am a Dan Simmons fan, but I would be the first to admit that his long novels require a bit of patience on the part of his readers. Be patient, pay attention to all the twists and turns of the main plot as a couple of side plots begin to intersect with it, and you will thoroughly enjoy The Fifth Heart. Just don't quit on it - and you won't want to if you pay full attention from the beginning.