Sherlock in the White City: “The Fifth Heart” by Dan Simmons

BK29FIFTHHEART.JPGOriginally published in The Denver Post.

In the spring of 1893, five years before he would publish “The Turn of the Screw,” Henry James decides to celebrate his 50th birthday in Paris by drowning himself in the river Seine. But as his foot hovers over the water, James notices a figure watching him in the dark: the World’s First and Foremost Consulting Detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Until recently, Holmes had been under the impression that his partner, Dr. Watson, was the author of his exploits appearing in The Strand, and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was merely his literary agent. However, Holmes has noticed continuity errors in his life, and through his powers of deduction, come to a disturbing realization.

“I am, the evidence has proven to me most conclusively, a literary construct. Some ink-stained scribbler’s creation.”

Regardless, Holmes’ appetite for unsolved mysteries has led him to the real-life suicide in 1885 of American socialite Clover Adams, the inspiration for Henry James’ early novel, “The Portrait of a Lady.”

Holmes believes Clover was murdered. Every year on the anniversary of her death, Clover’s late husband Henry Adams (grandson of former president John Quincy Adams) receives an anonymous calling card in the mail embossed with five hearts, one of which has been scratched out: like the novel’s title, it’s an allusion to the Five of Hearts, a group of influential Washingtonians who regularly gathered for tea in Clover’s parlor.

This isn’t the first time Dan Simmons, who lives in Boulder, has infused his Hugo award-winning fiction with history. “The Terror” (2007) reimagined the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin as an encounter with mythical horror, while “Drood” (2009) explored the final years of Charles Dickens’ life through the eyes of Wilkie Collins.

This time, Simmons has essentially written a literary buddy comedy, and the result is his funniest and breeziest novel to date, despite its heft. The reluctant, cantankerous Henry James is a perfect foil for Holmes. At first, James balks at the prospect of a transcontinental goose chase: “There is no power, means, force, blackmail, inducement, or other method of persuasion — in this lifetime or in any other possible variation of this life — that you could use to persuade me to travel with you tomorrow,” he quips. And Simmons’ Holmes is full of such delightful non sequiturs as “I see the physiognomy of men, not their added facial-hair accoutrements. I am, for instance, somewhat of an expert on ears.”

As they travel from Paris to Washington, and finally to the same World’s Fair in Chicago that Erik Larson brought to life in “The Devil in the White City,” the odd couple encounters Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and Mark Twain in the search for truth.

Even with a body of work as impressive as Simmons has accrued in the past 30 years, “The Fifth Heart” is one of his most engrossing and addictive books to date.

FICTION: MYSTERY

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown)

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