Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Fifth Heart

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

I'm such a dingbat that I don't know the difference between Stephen Dobyns and Dan Simmons. Seriously. I enjoyed the former's Church of Dead Girls, which came with a glowing quote from Stephen King, many years ago, and when I saw the gigantic uncorrected proof of this month's Fifth Heart, also sporting a glowing quote from Stephen King, I thought it was the same guy. I got the initials right, anyway. Just... reversed.

ANYWAY, The Fifth Heart is actually written by Dan Simmons, the fellow who has carved out a niche with great big historical fiction, mixing densely-researched reality with just a little bit of twinkling implausibility. His best-known novels, Drood and The Terror, showcase his talent for creepy and disturbing mysteries, letting just the traces, the shadows, of dark modern fantasy loose on the nineteenth century.

I was interested in this novel because I do love a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. This one's set in 1893, and features Holmes and at least the third iteration of his-son-by-Irene that I've come across. Sadly, it's not Auguste Lupa / Nero Wolfe, but Super Assassin Son o' Holmes. That's okay, I'm always up for something new. Part of me feels that I might be spoiling a revelation by introducing this, because the information is revealed in two separate chunks, but on the other hand, this novel joins a very full collection of Holmes pastiches to introduce a son to the story. By this time, the real surprise would be introducing a son of Irene Adler whom Holmes did not father. (You know, like Marko Vukčić. *grin* )

But I'm also up for something a little tighter than this. The Fifth Heart swells with bloat, badly needing an editor to crack to the core of things. It's set over the course of several weeks, starting in Paris and moving to DC and finally Chicago more than a month later, as Lucan Adler plots the assassination of President Cleveland, and Holmes, allied with the writer Henry James, investigates the years-old death of James' old friend Clover Adams, whose widower Henry Adams is at the center of the political turmoil.

It's not possible for me to read any writer's take on Holmes without hearing Jeremy Brett exclaim "Patience! All will be revealed!" And, to be sure, lots of writers have had lots of fun leaving Holmes three steps ahead of his associates in the story while they seethe, furiously, waiting for some explanations. If you enjoy this take on the character, then what Holmes puts poor Henry James through in this book is certain to entertain you. Simmons lets us see Holmes orchestrate a beatdown of a local drug gang, arrange an early meeting of what will evolve into the contemporary Secret Service, and take a lengthy side trip to one of Samuel Clemens's homes to have a look at a particular typewriter. It is amusing watching Simmons throw the investigation and drama into all these side streets - one of them involving chimney sweeps! - and wonder how in the world he's going to tie it all together. Then Henry James gets his own investigation going, wondering what's up with Holmes's enemy Moriarty, giving him yet another thing to juggle.

Honestly, there's a good story here, and possibly a very good one, but as with a few other writers' takes on Holmes at his most inscrutable - Laurie King's The Game comes to mind - I really did feel a bit too much for the unfortunate sidekick. No protagonist has ever deserved a bloody nose and a demand for answers quite as much as this Holmes does. In part, that's because the narrative really does get too bloated. The visit with Clemens goes on for pages and pages of cigars on the veranda and nostalgic reflection and thoughts on the subject of whether Holmes is actually a fictional character (and, if so, what that would mean for everybody else), and a good thirty more pages could have been chopped out by making Henry Adams not so damn stubborn and simply agreeing to the demands of the plot.

Going back to Nero Wolfe, you'll recall that in almost all of his tales, writer Rex Stout would have Wolfe remind everybody that things would go along much quicker if he could proceed without interruption, and, in the most wearying of them, probably Please Pass the Guilt, every blasted member of the supporting cast insists upon interrupting him, almost as though they're padding out the story until we hit an arbitrary page number? A lot of The Fifth Heart feels like that. The plot is already complex and nuanced; it would have been an easier and less frustrating read with fewer roadblocks and detours in the way. Simmons does not appear to be a snappy writer - much of his success appears to come from the feeling of complete immersion into the past - but I finished the book badly wishing for a snappier story. A mild recommendation with that in mind, wishing that I would have enjoyed it more, but I also finished this curious to read Drood sometime soon, so it was perhaps more successful than I first thought.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

No comments: