Colorado author Dan Simmons stirs up mystery, history and metaphysics in his latest novel, “The Fifth Heart.” He pairs Sherlock Holmes, one of the world’s most famous fictional detectives, with real-life writer Henry James to delve into the mysterious death of an American socialite. At the same time the two characters wrestle with the question of whether Holmes is real -- "some ink-stained scribbler's creation."
Simmons inserts Holmes into the social circle of a number of interesting historical figures like Henry Adams the grandson of President John Quincy Adams, a young Teddy Roosevelt and Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain. The plot weaves around and through numerous historical events such as the Chicago World’s Fair and the beginnings of the Secret Service.
Simmons has authored of dozens of books including the science fiction classic "Hyperion." He’s is well known for not sticking within a genre and using the classics as inspiration.
Dan Simmons speaks with host Ryan Warner on Colorado Matters. An excerpt from the book is below.
In the rainy March of 1893, for reasons that no one understands (primarily because no one besides us is aware of this story), the London-based American author Henry James decided to spend his April 15 birthday in Paris and there, on or before his birthday, commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine at night.
I can tell you that James was deeply depressed that spring, but I can’t tell you for a certainty why he was so depressed. Of course there had been the death in England, from breast cancer, of his sister Alice a year earlier on March 6, 1892, but Alice had been a professional invalid for decades and had welcomed the diagnosis of cancer. Death, she’d told her brother Henry, was the event which she’d always been anticipating with the greatest enthusiasm. At least in his letters to family and friends, Henry had seemed to support her in her eagerness for an ending, down to describing how lovely her corpse had looked.
Perhaps this unchronicled depression in James was augmented by the problem of his work not selling well over the immediately preceding years: his 1886 novels The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, both influenced by Alice’s slow dying and her Boston-marriage relationship with Katharine Loring, had been a major sales disappointment for all concerned, both in America and England. So by 1890 James had turned his quest for riches toward writing for the theater. Although his first melodramatic stage offering, The American, had done only moderately well, and that only in the provinces rather than in London, he’d convinced himself that the theater would turn out to be his ultimate pot of writer’s gold. But already by early 1893, he was beginning to sense that this hope was both illusion and self-delusion. Just as Hollywood would beckon literary writers to their doom for more than a century to come, the English theater in the 1890’s was sucking in men of letters who—like Henry James—really had no clue as to how to write a successful stage production for a popular audience.
Most biographers would understand this sudden, deep depression better if it were early spring of 1895 rather than March of 1893, since his first major London play, Guy Domville, two years hence will see him jeered and booed when he foolishly will step onto the stage to take his author’s bow. Most of the paying spectators in the hall, as opposed to the many glittering ladies and gentlemen in attendance to whom James sent complimentary tickets, will have never read a novel by Henry James, most will not know he had written novels, and thus they will boo and jeer the play based on its merits alone. And Guy Domville will be a bad, bad play.
Even a year from now, after January of 1894 when his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson will throw herself to her death from a high window in Venice (possibly, some shall whisper, because Henry James had not come to stay near or with her in Venice as he’d promised), we know he will have to fight off a terrible depression tinged with real guilt.
By the end of 1909, the elderly James will fall into his deepest-depression yet—one so deep that his older (and dying from a heart condition) brother William will cross the Atlantic to literally hold Henry’s hand in London. In those years, Henry James will be mourning the “disastrously low sales” and lack of profit from his 1906–1908 “New York Edition” of his works, an exhausting project to which he’d donated five years of his life rewriting the long novels and providing lengthy introductions to each piece.
But that final depression was sixteen years in our future in this March of 1893. We have no real clue as to why James was so terribly depressed that spring. Nor why he suddenly decided that suicide in Paris was his only answer.
One factor may have been the severe attack of the gout that James had suffered that cold English winter of 1892–93, cutting down on his daily walks and causing him to put on more weight. Or it could have been the simple fact that his upcoming birthday in April was his 50th: a landmark that has brought depression to stronger men than the sensitive Henry James.
We’ll never know.
But we do know that the reality of that depression—and his plan for self-annihilation by drowning in the Seine on or before his April 15 birthday—is where this story begins. So, in mid-March, 1893, Henry James (he’d dropped the “Jr.” sometime after his father died in 1882) wrote from London to family and friends saying that he was “taking a short leave from the daily duties of composition to celebrate spring and my own mid-century anniversary in sunlit Paris before joining my brother William and his family in Florence later in April”. James had no intention of ever going to Florence.
Carrying some of his sister Alice’s purloined ashes in a snuffbox, James left his tidied-up apartments in De Vere Gardens, burned some letters from Miss Woolson and from a few younger male friends, took the boat-train to Cherbourg, and arrived in the City of Light the next evening on a day darker and wetter and colder than any he’d suffered that March in chilly London.
There he settled into the Westminster Hotel on the Rue de la Paix where he’d once stayed for a month when he was writing several stories in Paris, including a favorite of his, “The Pupil”. But this time, “settled in” was not the correct phrase. He had no intention of spending the weeks there until his birthday. Besides, the fares at the Westminster were too extravagant for his current budget. He did not even unpack his steamer trunk. He did not plan to spend a second night there. Or, he decided on a whim, a second full night anywhere on this earth.
After a wet, cold day walking in the Jardin de Tuileries and a dismal, lonely dinner—given his resolve, he’d made no effort to contact any of his Parisian friends or other acquaintances who might have been passing through Paris—Henry James drank a final glass of wine, tugged on his woolen overcoat, made sure that the sealed snuffbox was still in his pocket, and, with the bronze tip of his still-folded umbrella tapping on wet cobblestones, set off in the drizzle and darkness for his chosen final destination near Pont Neuf. Even at his portly gentleman’s gait it was less than a ten-minute walk.
The ultimate man of the written word left no note behind.
Excerpted from the book THE FIFTH HEART by Dan Simmons. Copyright (c) 2015 by Dan Simmons. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.