Monday 20 February 2017

Books: Another pastiche? Elementary, dear reader

Fiction: The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons, Sphere, pbk, 664 pages, €20.99

Myles McWeeney

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

Super sleuths: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the hugely popular BBC show Sherlock
Super sleuths: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the hugely popular BBC show Sherlock
The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons.

This excellent Sherlock novel sees the sleuth team up with the author Henry James.

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For a character first created in late Victorian times, Sherlock Holmes is showing a remarkably rugged longevity. It seems that the frighteningly intelligent, hugely irascible, secretive, pipe-smoking, drug-addicted sleuth exercises a vice-like grip on the imagination of generations of readers and viewers. His original creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, died in 1930, but since then there has been a constant supply of new Sherlock Holmes stories, films and television shows to keep the Holmesian flame burning brightly.

His most recent TV iteration is in the popular BBC drama series Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and Martin Freeman as his amanuensis and foil, Afghan war veteran Dr John Watson. Brought bang up to date and set in modern London, with a little fantasy and time travel thrown in for good measure, the series, which first aired in 2010, has been a huge hit for the BBC, and is now shown in more than 200 territories around the world. It is believed a fourth series will begin shooting in London in the spring. Another successful contemporary television update of the character is Elementary, which is set in New York and stars Johnny Lee Miller as an Asperger's Syndrome-suffering Sherlock Holmes, with Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson.

Sherlock Holmes also transferred seamlessly from page to silver screen. From 1920 to 1923, an English actor called Ellie Norwood appeared in no less than 47 short silent films as the great detective, and earned a plaudit from Conan Doyle, who said: "His wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me".

The great American actor John Barrymore, grandfather of Drew Barrymore, played him in 1931. Perhaps the most influential interpreter of the Great Detective of all was the British actor Basil Rathbone. When people of a certain age conjure up a mental image of Holmes, it is usually Rathbone's unmistakable long, narrow face with its prominent cheekbones topped with a tweed deerstalker cap, body wrapped in an Inverness cape and clutching a Meerschaum pipe, they visualise.

Arthur Conan Doyle was brought up in Glasgow in a strict Catholic household. His father, an architect, did not prosper, but, driven by a fiercely ambitious mother, he studied medicine in Edinburgh and became a doctor at the age of 22. He abandoned Catholicism as a student, beginning a life-long belief in spiritualism, an action that caused an irreversible rift with his extended family.

Sherlock Holmes made his debut in a publication called Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887, when his creator was just 27 and working as a GP in Portsmouth and writing fiction at night. Of the 56 Holmes stories written by Conan Doyle over the subsequent years, this first published tale, A Study in Scarlet, was one of just four that are book-length. Its author was paid a flat fee of £25 for it, and never received another penny, even when it was published as a best-selling book the following year.

After an initially cool reception, the duo of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes proved immensely popular. For all their success, Conan Doyle had scant regard for his Holmes stories. To him they were crude pot-boilers, and the fact that they eclipsed the sales of his well-received historical novels annoyed him. He killed off Holmes in a story called The Final Problem in 1893, but was utterly shocked at the public reaction. People donned black armbands, wrote pleading letters to him, even threatened him. Nine years later, in 1901, he reluctantly relented, and a new Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was published in the popular Strand Magazine. The magazine's circulation shot up to 500,000, and readers queued outside its offices to get the next instalment. For the final dozen Holmes short stories, Conan Doyle was paid £1,000 - a huge sum in those days. His final Holmes story was published in 1927, three years before his death.

The seemingly indestructible detective has lived on in literature. Hundreds of books featuring Holmes and Watson by authors imitating Conan Doyle's style and voice with varying degrees of success and accuracy have been published over the years, including the well-received The House of Silk by Anthony Horowith, published in 2011.

The most recent reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes in print is The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons. Simmons is best known as one of the giants of contemporary American science fiction and horror, author of the Hugo Award-winning SF series The Hyperion Cantos and the equally award-bedecked Ilium/Olympos cycle. But, in fact, he is no stranger to historical fiction. He is the author of the rapturously received Drood, a fictitious recounting of the last five years of Charles Dickens' life narrated by his friend, fellow author and laudanum-addict Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White and Moonstone. Huge in scope and complexity, Drood is peopled by many of the famous literary and political figures of Victorian London.

In The Fifth Heart, Holmes travels to Washington in 1893, reluctantly accompanied by the famous expatriate American writer Henry James. Holmes has been retained to investigate the suicide of Clover Adams, wife of the noted historian Henry Adams, a member of the family that has given America two Presidents.

Holmes, thought to have died in battle with the evil Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, is in the middle of what he calls his Great Hiatus and is disguised as a Norwegian explorer, Jan Sigerson. As in Drood, the story is chock-a-block with famous Americans of the day, including John Hay, Mark Twain, Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom have a part to play to one degree or another in the unfolding of this dizzyingly complex and hugely enjoyable narrative.

Holmes, the master of disguise, is forever disappearing to check out his latest theory in the case, leaving the introverted and waspish James to pick up the pieces after him.

The breathlessly exciting final showdown takes place at the extraordinary 1893 World's Fair, The Colombian Exposition, in Chicago, which sees the normally timorous Henry James turn action hero to save his friend from certain death.

This is perhaps the best Sherlock Holmes pastiche to date, and is notable for the sympathetic portrait it paints of the self-regarding, prickly and prudish James.

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