Here's a terrific set up: It's the 1890s. The famous and quite depressed novelist Henry James (Daisy Miller, The American, The Bostonians and brother to psychologist-philosopher William James) crosses the Atlantic to kill himself and runs into consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, who firmly believes that he is NOT a real detective, NOT an actual person and, in fact, is only fictional. Real or not, the famous sleuth drags novelist James to America to help solve a woman's death that was ruled a suicide years before. But Holmes knows it was M-U-R-D-E-R!
If you're familiar with Dan Simmons' science fiction and horror books, you shouldn't be surprised at this mind-twisting, appetizing set-up. It also helps to have David Pittu's audiobook narration. English, German, Norwegian, Philadelphian, female, old, young - his vocal execution here is masterful. (audiobook - 23.5 hours; print - 618 pages)
And if you're a Holmes fan, this book is probably a must in the canon. Dan Simmons delivers personal details about Holmes' upbringing you may not have read before. Adding to the detective's cocaine fancy, the author details Holmes' fascination with the new wonder drug from the Bayer company. No, not aspirin. It's their new drug of such heroic proportions - they name it HEROIN. While most might puddle into a blob with heroin in their veins, it seems to enhance Holmes' physical agility as he single-handily takes down a covey of attacking thugs.
If you're NOT a fan of Conan Doyle's original Holmes stories - or if you are an ADD-prone listener/reader - you might not make it to the end of The Fifth Heart. A Sherlock Holmes adventure - it isn't. The terrific set up sadly descends into a meandering, lenghty, hodgepodge of activity without much coherency as told by E.L. Doctorow's doppleganger. Real folks like Mark Twain,Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Adlai Stevenson are woven in and out of the discombobulated story.
And if you don't get lost in the weeds in the 'A' story here, you may wander off-road as Simmons takes us through a bunch of Conan Doyle's original plots like The Hound of the Baskerville, among others. It's a bit challenging to know which of the stories, past and present, we're supposed to latch onto.
There are 18,536 Sherlock Holmes titles on Amazon. Certainly a strong testament to the enduring quality of the series and the several authors who have kept the series thriving all these years. Unfortunately, The Fifth Heart, isn't one of them.