What does wonderful historical fiction, Sherlock Holmes, Henry James, members of the Adams dynasty, anarchism, and numerous late 19th century historical figures and events add up to? The answer is a marvelous new novel by Dan Simmons, entitled, THE FIFTH HEART. Having just taken in the film, MR. HOLMES I have become fascinated by the character of the “great detective.” In his own mind he seemed to wonder whether he himself was real, or a fictional construct of Arthur Conan Doyle. It really does not matter whether these ruminations that appear throughout the book are true as Simmons has taken the friendship embodied in the American “salon” that included Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary and William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Hay and his wife Clara; Henry Adams and his spouse, Clover; and the noted geologist and explorer Clarence King called the “Five of Hearts” and turned it into a remarkable mystery that centers around a plot to assassinate President Grover Cleveland, and numerous other politicians and government officials designed to create the conditions for a massive revolt on the part of the lower classes to overthrow the then existing power structure.
(Clover Adams, wife of historian Henry Adams)
Simmons’ methodology is based on assiduous research, strong character development, and a plot that may not have been that farfetched in 1893 because of the earlier Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. The novel opens with a supposed chance meeting between Sherlock Holmes and the American writer, Henry James along the banks of the Seine River in Paris. It seems that James is contemplating suicide over the poor sales of his novels and short stories along with his inability to become a successful playwright. Holmes, who is bent on keeping a promise to the brother of Clover Adams concerning her suicide convinces James to accompany him to America and serve as his foil in the way that Dr. John Watson had done in the many cases that made Holmes famous. From this point on the novel takes off and along the way the reader meets Samuel Clemens, Henry Cabot Lodge and his wife Nellie, Theodore Roosevelt, William Dean Howells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and numerous other historical figures.
Simmons’ historical references integrated into character dialogue are impeccable. Simmons has an excellent eye for historical detail as he describes how New York evolved from a semi-rural grouping in the 1840s to an immigrant infused city of Jews, Irish and Italians, each with their own niche in society. His description of the Washington, DC of the 1890s is very accurate. From the foliage, architecture, boulevards, and slums of Foggy Bottom. His description of Chicago and the Columbian Exposition are also accurate in detail and in part replicate Erik Larson’s THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. What is astonishing is Simmons’ imagination and ability to connect the dots in his plot that though the story is fiction, it is in part quite plausible. The idea that Clover Adams’, a woman who suffered from melancholy and depression did not commit suicide and was murdered is in some way connected to an anarchist plot seems way off base until the author develops his story and with how events and characters come together, it may be possible.
It is fascinating how Simmons develops the Holmes/James relationship and their views about society in general. What is most curious is how James goes from complete distrust of the English detective to reliance on his logic, and how at times each seems to be investigating the other as they try to make sense of their relationship. The scenes involving the two are “precious” as are the interactions and word play between the characters and their views on race, Jews, and the origins of American anarchism. What emerges is that the coterie of individuals that Holmes and James must deal with runs the gamut from criminals and murderers to the intellectual circle that is the center of the Hay/Adams salon, a quite diverse grouping! The interplay of Holmes’ constant speculations intertwined with his investigation of Clover Adams’ death and the plot to assassinate President Cleveland accentuates the richness of the story line and makes THE FIFTH HEART a wonderful read. The only caveat that I would bring to the table is that the novel is quite long, and at times Simmons can meander away from what appears to be the core of the novel, but he always seems to pull things together to engross the reader even further.
Postscript: If you have ever read Phyllis O’Toole’s THE FIVE OF HEARTS you will appreciate Simmons’ ending.