Sunday, July 12, 2015

When Fiction Fails Badly: Dan Simmons' The Fifth Heart

I am not sure I have ever heard of a more brilliant idea for a book than Dan Simmons' The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown and Company), the latest Sherlock Holmes pastiche to reach the bookshelves. In a nutshell, Simmons has the writer Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady) meet up with The Great Detective while contemplating suicide in Paris and then getting involved with Holmes’ latest case. The twist: an increasingly distraught Holmes has deduced that there is a strong likelihood that he is actually a fictional character. But let’s stop here. The Fifth Heart is essentially a complete botch, a sloppily written; indifferently (for the most part) characterized and not especially interesting adventure that pretty much drops the ball concerning its initial conceit. It’s almost as if Simmons had mostly forgotten his idea of Holmes’ possibly not being real – it’s barely alluded to – or even that when he decided upon writing the novel that the concept wasn’t that compelling after all. In any case, the follow through on the original idea is so thinly realized as to be almost non-existent.

The story in The Fifth Heart concerns The Five Hearts, a group comprising James’ good friends, including historian Henry Adams, from the prominent political family, mountaineer and author Clarence King and statesman John Hay. They have received ominous letters each year suggesting something untoward regarding the "suicide,'' nearly a decade before, of Clover Adams, Henry Adams’ loving wife. Though she was a depressive person, Holmes, at the behest of her late brother, has been tapped to investigate her death, which he quickly concludes was actually murder. James, who is not one of The Five Hearts, doesn’t believe that is the true case but, still seeking excitement and purpose in his life, allows himself to be roped into visiting his native America, ten years after he supposedly left her for good to live in England.

author Dan Simmons
That’s at least as provocative a plot as any that could be found in the stories or novels in the Holmes canon, but Simmons refuses to tie it in satisfactorily to the other main thread which is the detective’s investigation of a nefarious plot, by none other than his arch enemy, Professor James Moriarty, to sow anarchist confusion in the Western world. (That audacious scheme strikes me as a bit too modern in its complex execution, a post 9/11 concept, for a book set in the late 19th century.) That case, which also features other key figures from the Holmes canon, leads James and Holmes, at last, to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, also known as the Chicago’s World Fair, the subject of Erik Larson’s far more completing non-fiction account Devil in the White City, which convincingly linked this major cultural event to the US’s first serial killer. Simmons' use of the fair is mere backdrop to his tale; you don’t learn anything really compelling about it except for its historically impressive bulk and unique scale.

Mostly, Simmons spends an inordinate amount of time delineating the daily life and habits of the rich and influential in the environs of Washington, D.C. where James' friends live, which is not uninteresting, but does seem a tad more detailed than necessary to move the tale along. More significantly, Simmons can’t decide on the tone of his novel; at one instance, early on, he breaks down the wall between reader and writer by having an unreliable narrator ask why he is switching from James’ point of view to that of Holmes. That narrator also admits that much of what he is transcribing about the adventure is based on supposition since he doesn’t know for certain where Holmes and James were at all times. Yet that is more of an aside he doesn’t revisit later on in the novel. (If he had kept the reader unbalanced by always suggesting doubt in the ‘veracity’ of his account, The Fifth Heart would have been far more interesting.) I still can’t fathom why each of the novels’ four parts is headed differently. Part one lists Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. Part two titles the chapters. Part three lists each chapter as a timeline and part four just numbers them, 1, 2 and so on. There is no clear point in this except to gull the reader into thinking there is something clever or even profound in that sleight of hand. There is not.

As for the book’s characterization, it, too, falters more often than not. James is reasonably compelling; approaching fifty, less successful than he used to be in his profession – he’s contemplating a career as a playwright instead of a writer – and still jealous of his older and better known brother William and a repressed homosexual to boot. He has enough depths to make him a credible subject for a book. But I still prefer Dr. Watson, whose incredulity at Homes’ intellectual prowess and naïve faith in people, strikes me as more much interesting than the skeptical James, who hates conceding that Holmes is anything more than a mere mortal in his deductions and, sometimes, not even that. (Simmons' portrayal of Sherlock, which should not be hard to convey, seems a little off.)  Other famous figures in the book include James’ fellow writer Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), who is not at all believable as a character, as his inane utterances render him more as a (bad) parody of the man (he also considers Homes to be real but wouldn’t this arch debunker be the first to question Holmes’ authenticity?) and rising political star Theodore Roosevelt, whose presence provides The Fifth Heart with one of its more gripping sequences when the young Teddy disrupts the polity of a respectable formal dinner with his disturbing and ignorant declamations on race and American exceptionalism. He also calls James "effeminate," a comment which disturbs the writer greatly. I would have liked more of Teddy in the book; as a Holmesian sidekick he would have been more of a fascinating contrast to the rational Holmes than the upright James. (Actually, the best use of real life figures in Holmes’ made up world, remain Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), wherein Holmes encounters psychologist Sigmund Freud and The West End Horror (1976), which has him bumping up against the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, among other literary and theatrical luminaries. Meyer's novels smartly, and unlike The Fifth Heart, keep things relatively simple, and thus effective, concerning the actual machinations of their plots.)

Least forgivable in The Fifth Heart is the consistent messiness in its laying out of "facts." James books a cruise ship to England that is leaving at 7pm; yet a few paragraphs later it’s departing at 7am. Clemens brings up the subject of Holmes being fictional, yet we don’t read that Holmes ever brought that idea up to him in the first place. Nor would he have, not knowing Twain the way he has come to know James whom he has decided is a useful companion on this fresh adventure. Those are likely editorial/proofreading errors, an increasing aspect of almost every book I pick up, part of the egregious cost cutting of publishing today. Less comprehensible are the structural inconsistencies in the novel, which I can lay at Simmons' door. James notes that Holmes has admitted to fabricating the personage of Professor Moriarty, whom almost nothing is known about and whom the detective utilized so as to explain his own ‘death’ at Reichenbach Falls (subject of the Holmes tale "The Final Problem") yet the writer doesn’t parse that with the telegrams sent to Holmes, which he has espied, that carry messages from Holmes’ brilliant brother Mycroft which warn of the danger of Moriarty’s presence in America. (The Moriarty explanation in the book, incidentally, doesn’t really make sense in light of those telegrams.) Nor does he consider that if Holmes is fake than so must be Mycroft. James (and Clemens, too) briefly wonder if they themselves are genuine but that fascinating thought, like so much that is raised in the novel, comes to naught.

All this brings me back to the main idea which, presumably, is why Simmons wrote The Fifth Heart in the first place, the questioning of Holmes’ authenticity as a human being. I like that Holmes gets the idea that he is merely Arthur Conan Doyle’s or someone else’s literary creation because of the inconsistencies in Holmes creator Doyle’s books, notably the actual, inexplicable contradictions in Dr.Watson’s life, remarked upon by so many Holmes scholars, such as the specific placement of the wound the good doctor sustained in Afghanistan, or how many wives he really had. Since Watson supposedly wrote the books or, at the very least, transcribed them to Conan Doyle, those "facts" if no other, should mesh. (The actual adventures penned by Dr. Watson are rife with inaccuracies and falsified characters as Holmes readily admits.) Yet upon building the bedrock of this idea, of Holmes not being who he used to think he was, Simmons fritters it away. So much of the book doesn’t address it – when it should have run throughout as a constant thematic thread – that I wonder again why Simmons bothered with it at all. The sole revelation as to why Holmes might indeed be fictional is quite poignant but it appears so late in the book and is quickly then dispatched so as to render is almost meaningless. The Fifth Heart’s conclusion is thus seriously lacklustre. I am still puzzled why this is so as Simmons, while inconsistent – Carrion Comfort (1989) is one of best vampire novels I’ve ever read; Summer of Night (1991) is a boy’s tale horror novel that reads like warmed over Stephen King – is generally a decent novelist. I don’t think you’d know it from this book though. If ever a book required a do-ever, The Fifth Heart is it.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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