Book Review: The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (March 24, 2015)
Author Information: Website
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
A Dan Simmons book is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. And like a box of chocolates, you know they’re all good but some are going to be better than others. Simmons is a versatile author who seems to write a bit of everything, and I’ve come to the conclusion that for me personally, his Historical Fiction is kind of like those sticky little peanut nougats – that is, they’re not my favorite. I’d much rather prefer those with the milk chocolate filled with caramel or raspberry cream, which in the context of this yummy little example would be probably Simmons’ Horror or Science Fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Dan Simmons. His book The Terror is one of my favorite novels of all time, and I’ll never look at time travel the same way again thanks to his Hyperion, which completely blew my mind. But then there are his books like Drood or 2013’s The Abominable that just didn’t resonate with me at all. Now that I’m finished reading it, I think my reaction to The Fifth Heart falls somewhere in between.
The book is described as a historical novel about the American author Henry James. Up until the events of the introduction, James has been leading a miserable life. His writing career is stagnating, and with fiftieth birthday is coming up, he feels like he’s got little to show for it. Things are so bad that he’s decided to commit suicide by traveling to Paris and throwing himself into the Seine.
But all that changed when he serendipitously meets a man named Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant London-based detective who sets the two of them on a literary puzzle to solve the mystery of Clover Adams’ death. But wait a minute now, I hear you asking, isn’t Sherlock Holmes a fictional character? Well, yes, and that’s actually where it starts to get interesting. Simmons is up to his old tricks again, because he can never seem to write a straight-up historical or fantasy or <insert genre here>. That, and he seems to have a penchant for going a bit metafiction on us in recent years. Sure, you can look at this book as a historical mystery, with a bit of thriller and suspense thrown in, but really, when you boil it all down? The Fifth Heart is a Sherlock Holmes story. Dan Simmons style.
What does that mean? First of all, you’ll be exposed to a whole cast of historical figures including Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams (the historian who is the descendant of two American presidents and husband of Clover Adams, the woman whose death is at the center of this mystery). Then there are the fictional characters like Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty and a couple others from the Holmes tradition, and even one delightful little mention of Christie’s Hercule Poirot! Then there’s the humor. When fictional and historical worlds collide, you get some pretty bizarre situations. Henry James is essentially Holmes’ new sidekick in this story, becoming intrigued by the detective’s belief that he is a fictional character. He picks up the Sherlock Holmes books, and essentially begins making fun of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing by poking fun at everything in stories that don’t make sense. That’s before James descends into his own existential crisis, wondering if he himself is also a product of someone else’s imagination playing out his part in a fictional story. Which, in this case, he actually is! Didn’t I tell you things get meta?
See, all that stuff was great. The Fifth Heart works well as a mix of all the elements I just discussed, and I love that Simmons is always trying new things and writing very unique and creative stories. But there were also a lot of issues here that I just couldn’t ignore. When it comes down to it, I couldn’t fully embrace The Fifth Heart for the very same reasons I couldn’t get into the last book by Simmons that I read, which was The Abominable. The reason is that both books were just WAY too bogged down by what I felt were unnecessary info dumps, which Simmons goes into with exhaustive detail.
Simmons strikes me as an author who never scrimps on research, which is great. Unless he specifies to the contrary, I can always count on the facts I read in his books to be pretty accurate. What’s not so great is when all that research ends up in the book, descriptions going on sometimes for pages at a time. I get that sometimes you can come across a fascinating piece of information while researching and become very eager to share what you discovered with others. But really, a lot of the information such as historical or biographical details could have been pared way down. It’s just like in The Abominable, when I really could have done without the few dozen or so paragraphs on the many wonderful kinds of ice axes and 12-point crampons.
I would probably recommend The Fifth Heart only to the most loyal of Dan Simmons fans, or Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. I can’t deny the concept was fun, but it could have been a better book if the lengthy expositions didn’t wreak so much havoc on the pacing. That said, I’ll still probably pick up the next Simmons book. He has such skill and imagination; I know not all of his books will be my cup of tea, but I can always count on him writing brilliant stories with brilliant ideas.