The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown and Company, 2015)

Fifth Heart
starstarstarstarHalf Star

One thing you can never do with Dan Simmons is pigeon hole him under a specific genre. He’s published in most, from epic science fiction to mysteries to horror to thrilling historical fiction. Other than his Blade Runneresque novel Flashback from 2011, his previous four novels have been works of historical fiction; a couple of them have been fantastic, engrossing books — The Terror and Drood — and the other two — Black Hills and The Abominable — were lacking in something. His latest novel, The Fifth Heart, is a return to those earlier, thrilling works as he takes an idea that would hook any literary fan and takes you on one wild ride. The premise is a relatively simple one: what if Sherlock Holmes and Henry James teamed up together to solve a murder?

Sherlock Holmes is in Paris on a foggy night and finds Henry James by the Seine about to commit suicide. Instead, Holmes tells him he will join him on a ship in the morning to cross the Atlantic for James’s native United States to solve a murder that was thought and assumed to be a suicide. Clover Adams was a close friend of Henry James who committed suicide in 1885 under somewhat unusual circumstances. She was a member, along with James, of the Five of Hearts salon. And yet an enigmatic message is sent to the remaining members each year indicating nothing is as simple and clear cut as it seems.

Holmes begins his painstaking investigation, interviewing many and traveling all around Washington DC. James unwittingly becomes his Watson, as he also learns that Holmes is unsure if he is a real person or a fictional character, and that the stories Watson has penned about him with the help of literary agent Arthur Conan Doyle have distorted the facts of his past cases to make them all the more adventurous and grandiose. Holmes takes on many disguises and does what he does best.

Along the way readers will get to meet some fun characters, like Mark Twain and a young Teddy Roosevelt. They will also get to meet some familiar people from Holmes’s world, including Irene Adler and the infamous Professor Moriarty. The mystery will take James and Holmes away from DC to New York and then up to the Chicago to the White City and the World’s Fair where they will attempt to thwart a plot to assassinate the President of the United States.

Simmons clearly had a lot of fun with this novel, throwing as much literary subject matter as history. It is a lengthy novel and he enjoys taking the reader on interesting tangents, which all help to keep the reader enthralled as they have no idea where the story is going to go next. As with The Terror, the language makes it feel like one is reading something penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, with the use of particular language, diction and detail. Simmons fans will not be disappointed, while Holmesian ones will be delighted.

Originally written on August 1st, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

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You might also like . . .

Hyperion  Drood  The Terror

“Spain in Mind” Edited by Alice Leccese Powers (Vintage, 2007)

Spain in Mindstarstarstarstar

Take a trip to the wonderful and historical country of Spain, but not just the Spain of the present day, but of the past century, and the century before; as seen through the eyes of such renowned writers as Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and many more.  Presented in an almost pocket-sized wonderful paperback edition and edited by Alice Leccese Powers, who’s previous In Mind series have been very popular; Spain in Mind is the ideal book for those thinking to travel to Spain, those who are traveling, or those who wish to know more and just want something easy and interesting to read.  The beauty of a collection of travel stories is that they can be read over short periods of time and enjoyed just as much as an entire travel book by one person.  This is not just a travel book about Spain, but a historical, political, critical, and anthropological book about the country that more and more people visit every year.

Having just come back from a week’s vacation in Spain, on the Costa del Sol, this book was an ideal companion for the long plane ride over, and during the week I was able to sample and experience many of the tastes and sights Spain has to offer according to Spain in Mind.  Calvin Trillin writes lengthy and descriptive about the famous Spanish peppers known as pimientos de Padrón which he only travels to Spain for, and eats in vast amounts.  Trillin has even tried growing the peppers in his native New Jersey, but so far has failed, and has to return to Spain often to satisfy his addiction.  On one family get together, I was able to experience these pimientos and while I don’t hold them in such high esteem as Trillin, it was wonderful to read about a famous dish and then be in Spain to try it for the first time.

I was born in Spain and spent the first eighteen years of my life there, before coming to California; I hadn’t been back in four and half years until this trip.  Alice Leccese Powers starts the book with a comprehensive and enchanting introduction that brought back all the memories of Spain for me, and will serve as an excellent introductory course to those having never traveled to Spain or simply not knowing much about the culture.  On the matter of the renowned Spanish siesta, Powers indicates that in this dynamic and modern world, it is still very much alive: “Although there are reports of the decline of the midday fiesta because of the pressures of modern life – commuting, two-family households, a bustling economy – it is still difficult to find an open pharmacy in Madrid in the middle of the afternoon.” I can attest to this with firsthand experience with regard not just to pharmacies, but to many different stores, even the parking!  Between two and three in the afternoon, parking is free in my hometown of Fuengirola, presumably because the meter maids are taking their siesta.

Sadly, bullfighting is still very much alive in Spain, with the colorful posters covering every bare space of public wall with the lionized torero or bullfighter shown in regal splendor.  Hemingway’s piece is of a long battle between two bullfighters in 1959 who challenged each other to kill the most bulls.  While it isn’t my cup of tea, the writing is of course Hemingway: uniquely described with brevity and accuracy.  Powers wonderfully balances this with a Henry James piece.  The author has this to say on the subject of bullfighting: “Yet I thought the bull, in any case, a finer fellow than any of his tormentors, and I thought his tormentors finer fellows than the spectators.”

George Orwell writes of the civil war and the part he played in it.  Barbara Kingsolver writes of the unique flora, fauna and way of life on the Canary Islands.  Chris Stewart, a one-time member of Genesis and now British expatriate, writes of his experiences in living on a farm in Spain.  There is even Rose Macaulay, traveling on her own by car in the 1940s – which was a rare thing – who does not seem to like Spain that much, choosing not to visit the tourist-clogged south, and voicing a distaste for many things; nevertheless providing a unique eyewitness account bursting with description and detail.

Powers also balances the prose with quite a few poems from e. e. cummings, Billy Collins, W. H. Auden, John Dos Passos, Langston Hughes, and Andrew Marvell.  While a map of the towns along with some photos of places and things described in the book would’ve improved Spain in Mind, it is a wonderful mixture of material covering three centuries from very different writers moving to or visiting Spain for many different reasons.  It is through their experiences in their writing that we experience the true life of Spain, not just in describing the places, but in these people living their lives there.  We see Spain through their eyes, and live Spain through their hearts.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 29th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.