American literature, Book review, Literary criticism

Sherlock Holmes, where are you?

Sherlock Holmes, invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1897 in A Study in Scarlet, keeps popping up again and again; a contemporary television series “Sherlock” (2010) starring Benedict Cumerbatch, and a movie franchise “Sherlock Holmes” (1: 2009, 2: 2011, 3: in development) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Now he appears in two celebrated novels.

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

The Fifth Heart Cover pic

Fiction, by its very definition, is the process of “imaginative narration” or “a composition of non-factual events” and accordingly enables writers to create, to ‘make up’, whatever the hell they want. It is a little incongruous then that most readers seem to want to read stories that are familiar, plot driven (literary fiction is on the decline) and with an ending that is expected and therefore satisfying. I think it is fair to say that all stories can be whittled down to the good guy wins, the bad guy looses or, as Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism say about her three volume novel she wrote in her youth, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2, Scene 1, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means”.  However fantasy and science fiction, extremely ‘made up’ narratives, are among the top five most popular literary genres. Still within their contexts what is familiar (treachery, jealousy, love, betrayal, and relationships) is still what is expected.

Dan Simmons pic

Dan Simmons is one of the few novelists whose work spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, historical fiction, noir crime fiction, and mainstream literary fiction. His books are published in 29 counties.

I first encountered Dan Simmons with his novel, Drood (2009), his re-invention of Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I didn’t finish it. It had nothing to do with Dickens and I have very little time for horror/fantasy. However, with The Fifth Heart (2015) I was prepared to ‘swallow’ whatever Simmons ‘made up’; and he makes up everything except the names of his two main characters, Sherlock Holmes, a made up character himself, and the novelist, Henry James, a real person.

It is clear from page one that the reader is well and truly in Dan Simmons territory: Henry James, the famous American expat novelist (and real person once upon a time) is approaching 50, in Paris, depressed, and plans to kill himself by throwing himself into the Seine under Pont Neuf. Not surprisingly he is thwarted in his suicide attempt (it doesn’t take such Holmesian logic to realise that Henry James’s name is on the front cover and this is only page 4) by a Norwegian explorer who James instantly recognises as Sherlock Holmes (you know, the literary character invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) despite the disguise (wig and puttied nose); despite the dark and misty night; despite the fact that this is 1896 and Holmes, the fictional character, has been dead for 3 years, having been killed off in the last of the Holmes published mysteries, The Adventure of the Final Problem published in 1893 which saw Holmes tumble over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in the deadly grip of his arch-foe Moriarty. The bodies were never found. Ha! Oh, Henry James shrugs off all these discrepancies, and Simmons expects us to do so too, since James remembers meeting Holmes at an afternoon soirée at the home of his good friend Mrs. O’Connor four years before. Holmes is also contemplating suicide because he is worried that he may not be a real person; he only “feels really alive” when he is on (read “written into”) a mystery. This is real fiction I keep reminding myself and I promised myself I would keep my disbelief at bay and go along for the ride…that is what readers of fiction are supposed to do.

The mystery, “The Mystery of the Century” as the quote on the jacket cover reassures us concerns a group of friends, known affectionately as The Five Hearts, and known well by Henry James. One of them, Clover Adams, The Fifth Heart, committed suicide two years prior to the action but on every anniversary of the death, the remaining members of the group all receive a type-written card announcing unsubtilely “She was murdered.” Holmes coerces James to accompany him to the USA to help solve the mystery.

A novel is within its own universe; and this universe may or may not be the universe of the reader. This is most obvious is the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy; in fact it is possible, and easy, to argue that the universe of a novel is never that of the reader.

In the same sense that the stature of David had always existed in the massive block of stone that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci fought over and Michelangelo, who obviously won the fight, simply had to remove the outer, and superfluous, rock to reveal the image of the boy, a story can also be thought of as having happened in all its detail, nuances, and meaning and someone just needs to tell it; to write it down. This is exactly what happens in journalism, history writing, and memoir. There is also a sense of this in all forms of fiction

Let us assume that I write a story about an astronaut who develops bowel cancer. This would be a very rare, and unlucky, even ironic, occurrence since all astronauts, before donning their space suit, for rehearsal, training, and the actual space travel itself, must undergo an enema; if you wanted an occupation that would guarantee you a healthy bowel, especially if your family history was riddled with unhealthy ones, then astronaut would be the job for you. Now, my story hangs on this one event: the tragedy of my protagonist who contracts a life-threatening disease, the one he was convinced would never happen to him and how he comes to terms with his own mortality even though he is the healthiest, most positive, most enthusiastic, fearless, and life-loving person he knows; he’s walked in space, for Christ’s sake, to repair a faulty solar energy unit while conducting experiments on neutron absorption, and stood on the moon watching the Earth rise. He deserves to live.

The last thing I want my reader to do is to rush to his computer and Google ‘enema+astronaut’ to verify that astronauts do indeed undergo enemas before they don their space-suits. I want my reader to accept that in the universe of my story, which may not be his/her universe, astronauts do undergo enemas before climbing into their space suits. By the way, I have no idea if astronauts have enemas or not; I made it up, but it’s not a difficult idea to accept; it’s plausible, in the universe I have created for my story; but my point is that it doesn’t have to be plausible it just has to be acceptable.

In the universe of The Fifth Heart people that actually existed in the reader’s universe (Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Samuel Clemens – yes, Mark Twain makes an appearance) rub shoulders, have dinners and arguments, and go on mystery-solving adventures with made-up characters from other literary universes, ie, Sherlock Holmes, and even he doesn’t know if he’s a real person or not. I find this very hard to accept; I know I should, but I can’t; and that’s why I stopped reading it.

Mr. Simmons also makes a novelistic mistake: he breaks the ‘fourth-wall’ and has his narrator address the reader directly.

“Wait a minute. The reader needs to pardon this interruption as the narrator makes a comment here.” (Who is speaking here? If it is the narrator surely he would say “The reader needs to pardon this interruption as I make a comment here.” This is another narrator! (Oh, picky-picky!)

This would be fine, and normally acceptable, if it is necessary, but it is not. Simmon’s narrator is not a character in the story, he is an un-named voice and like most un-named narrative voices, is all-seeing, all knowing, omnipotent: god-like. Mr. Simmons allocates almost a whole chapter to his narrator to apologise to the reader for switching the narrative’s point of view from Henry James to Sherlock Holmes when it is an acceptable tradition in fiction writing that an omnipotent narrator can change the POV whenever it is necessary. There are many novels that do this, the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn for example (see my blog post of October 6, 2014): St Aubyn’s narrator jumps around all over the place. The reason for Simmons doing this is that he may have never done this before and he felt that he owed it to his loyal readers to explain what he is doing; or, maybe, that is what distinguishes literary fiction from other genres; or, maybe, it is the publisher/editor speaking. Oh! Never mind!

Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin

Mr Holmes Cover pic

The universe of Mitch Cullin’s Mr Holmes is unsullied. We meet the ageing Holmes (a real person in the same universe first created by Doyle) in the twilight years of his life, in 1947. He lives in a little cottage in Sussex tended by a saddened widow, Mrs Munro, who lives next door with her young delightful son, Roger. Mr Holmes has become quite an expert at bee-keeping and despite his curmudgeonly demeanour forms an affectionate attachment to the intelligent lad who shares his fascination and love of bees.

The story has three narrative lines: his quiet and, seemingly, idyllic life in the country, tending bees with Roger; a trip to Japan, from which he has just returned, where he was invited by another bee-keeping enthusiast, Mr. Umezaki who lives with his dour mother and male partner in Kobe; and an unsolved mystery, from the zenith of his career, which Holmes has been writing, but which needs a resolution and which the young Roger finds buried on Mr. Holmes’ cluttered desk and begins to read: The Glass Armonicist.

An armonica is a musical instrument consisting of glass discs of increasing diameters on a single shaft which when spun produce, via friction, notes of calculated tones. An armonicist is a player of such an instrument.

These three seemingly unconnected narratives coalesce due to a tragedy that rocks not only the ageing detective’s sense of himself but also gives him an understanding of life and love that he didn’t know he needed. This is literary fiction at its best: intriguing, beguiling, and satisfying.

Mitch Cullin pic 3

Mitch Cullin is an American writer, born in 1968; he has written seven novels and shares his time between Arcadia, California and Tokyo Japan.

A screen adaptation, Mr. Holmes, was produced in 2015 starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, and Hiroyuki Sanada.

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