Dan Simmons is known for big, serious books like Drood and The Terror that mix real-life history with genre fiction. And while The Fifth Heart is certainly big, it’s also brisk, funny and a hell of a good time.
It starts with a killer premise: What if Henry James, author of The Turn of the Screw, teamed up with one of literature’s most beloved characters, Sherlock Holmes, to solve a murder mystery in turn-of-the-century America?
One step away from suicide in the spring of 1893, Henry stumbles upon Sherlock in Paris. Using his powers of deduction, Sherlock has concluded that the continuity errors in his own life—like Dr. Watson’s ever-changing wives and war wounds—mean that he and his partner are probably fictional characters. And to solve his latest mystery across the Atlantic in Washington, D.C., Sherlock needs Henry’s help—but not as a writer.
“[Y]our rendering of the most exciting adventures you and I might have in America,” quips Sherlock, “would end up with a beautiful young lady from America as the protagonist, various lords and ladies wandering through, verbal opaqueness followed by descriptive obtuseness, and nothing more exciting being allowed to occur in the tale than a verbal faux pas or tea service being late.”
Instead, Sherlock needs Henry because of his real-life relationship with the late Clover Adams, granddaughter-in-law of John Quincy Adams. Each year on the anniversary of her suicide, Clover’s brother receives a card in the mail with five embossed hearts and the typewritten words, “She was murdered.” When Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty turns up, too, how can Henry reconcile real life with fiction?
It’s a riveting literary puzzle, and Simmons perfectly encapsulates the voices of his larger-than-life characters in a worthy, satisfying homage to Victorian mystery fiction.