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Henry James, consulting detective

Published : Apr 6, 2016, 1:29 am IST
Updated : Apr 6, 2016, 1:29 am IST

The Fifth Heart is as much a detective novel with the thrill of Sherlock Holmes cases, as it is an implicit biography (fictional or otherwise) of both the American author Henry James and Holmes.

The Fifth Heart is as much a detective novel with the thrill of Sherlock Holmes cases, as it is an implicit biography (fictional or otherwise) of both the American author Henry James and Holmes. The book opens with the fictional detective questioning his existence, and sharing his quandary with the famous (and very real) James, setting the stage for a novel with true dates, people and events woven into fiction and the deepest thoughts of the two protagonists.

Dan Simmons’ telling of the adventures of the beloved detective, originally created by Arthur Conan Doyle, at its centre is a detailed, long and extensive historical mystery. The story is set in America of the 19th century, as opposed to the Holmes’ foggy homeland London. A despondent James is dragged by Holmes to America to solve the mystery of the alleged suicide of Clover Adams, the wife of American historian Henry Adams, both of whom are James’ closest friends. Despite his reluctance, James finds himself more and more involved in Holmes’ dealings as they move between the death of Clover Adams and a more sinister and dangerous plot to assassinate the then President of America, Grover Cleveland, which could be one of the series of attacks on heads of nations across the world.


The story, interestingly, is told from both James’ and Homes’ perspective, alternating as and when the plot requires; this was quite unlike Doyle’s descriptions through Dr John Watson, Holmes’ friend and proverbial sidekick. In addition to an insight into the working of two great minds, one fictional the other not, the shifting perspectives also act as a biographical tool for both the characters. The author takes the liberty to dive into their pasts, detailing their lives and base nature, drawing up an explanation, as it were, to their persona. For example, Simmons deconstructs and explains one of the many classic Holmes mysteries – The Adventure of the Copper Beaches – when James questions the logic of the story. Holmes, much like in the original stories by Doyle, dismisses Watson’s version, calling it sensational and simplistic and proceeds to give a much detailed and gruesome account of the case. Another instance has Holmes talking about his desires to be a stage actor in his twenties, while Simmons describes James’ unhappiness with his writing despite having birthed such works as The Portrait of a Lady. The descriptions are truly intimate and human, an aspect not much portrayed in Doyle’s adventures.


As Holmes traipses across Washington, New York and Chicago in search for clues for the mystery, and his own past, several eminent literary and political figures flash in and out of the narrative — Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, and even Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. If one were unaware of these figures, the tale would be a long list of names and pompous characters with a scarcity of adventure in what I hoped was a complete thriller. It is only in the last 250 odd pages that the mystery truly picks pace, while the first 400 pages are dedicated to setting the foundation and giving ample room to have luxurious descriptions for the characters.


The details, however, delve far too much on matters unrelated to the mystery, which almost made me want to skip pages or nod off at the very least. Nevertheless, the details give a rich representation of the highs and lows of the American society. In presuming acquaintance with events and characters of late 19th century America, the book is at times exclusionary.

In an age where Sherlock Holmes mysteries are told and retold for the film-going and series-buffering audiences, The Fifth Heart is a difficult read owing only to its characters and length. This notwithstanding, I caught myself holding my breath at least one point as the shadows hid Holmes’ adversary. The plot by itself is scintillating owing to Holmes’ and James’ surprising personal connections and involvement with the characters. Simmons lays bare both their lives and to an ardent fan of either, The Fifth Heart will prove to be a delightful read.