I imagine that somewhere, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper are battering and bruising each other in hopes of winning the title of "Most Overexposed Victorian Character." Holmes, I believe, is currently winning, although I've got at least three Ripper novels scheduled to arrive on my Kindle over the next few months. In the current crop of Holmes pastiches, Dan Simmons' The Fifth Heart certainly stands out for sheer heft: at over 600 pages long, it's the length of several ACD collections stitched together. One can only imagine what Henry James, one of our protagonists, might have said about it. Fortunately, The Fifth Heart is also on my Kindle, although lugging it around the village might have added a bit more oomph to my cardiovascular exercise.
At this point in the canon's afterlife, one of the major (if not fatal) problems facing anyone who decides to channel Holmes is that virtually every plot point, every potentially "subversive" twist, has already been done. In The Fifth Heart, two big revelations about Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty sound awfully familiar. Holmes' identity crisis--he cannot figure out if he is real or a fictional character--is potentially the most interesting thing about the book, and I'll discuss it a bit more below, but even this aspect of Simmons' project has already been pursued with far more literary acumen by Michael Dibdin, Mitch Cullin, Michael Chabon, and, to some extent, Charles Marowitz. Meanwhile, the political conspiracy plot, in which evil German anarchists ("Socialists!") are trying to Take over the World by Assassinating Lots of World Leaders, is perhaps best described as "clumsy," when it isn't simply being cranky. (One suspects allegory at work.)
Before one can even get to the point of rolling one's eyes at the conspiracy plot, though, one has to wade through the badly-edited prose. As an academic with a penchant for pedantry, I sympathize with Simmons' desire to use up all of his 3x5 cards, but much of the historical detail (the height of the Brooklyn bridge! The construction of the White City! Dinner menus!) serves no narrative purpose: it is too colorless to provide historical color; it does nothing to advance plot or characterization; it is too obviously researched to function as a Barthesian reality effect. When Holmes gives Henry James a spiel about the size of each building in the White City ("thirteen acres of surface to paint"! [loc. 7042]), the reader winds up feeling trapped by a particularly tedious lecturer who confuses a succession of facts with visual description (or, in this case, with historical narrative). I've complained before about Simmons' habit of including entire kitchens (never mind the sink) in his historical novels, and The Fifth Heart goes one step further by dropping in a full restaurant, as it were. Moreover, while the metafiction (again, see below) could, I suppose, excuse some of the novel's self-contradictions and repetitions--an entire run of puns gets repeated twice; Holmes seems unaware of whether or not he actually likes Watson; in the space of a page, Adlai Stevenson had to "think a minute" and "think about that for a minute" (loc. 6768, loc. 6771); etc.--nothing in either the rest of the novel or Simmons' previous oeuvre makes me particularly inclined to think this is anything other than inattentive writing and equally inattentive proofreading.
Which is rather unfortunate, because Henry James is rather hard on Watson/Doyle. Doyle, of course, incorporates his own metafictional reflections on Watson's prose: Holmes complains in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" that Watson has "degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales" and in The Sign of Four that he injects too much "romanticism" into the plots. Watson, of course, successfully gets his own back in "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," as Holmes ruefully admits that "the matter must be presented in such a way as may interest the reader." Simmons' Henry James, alas, is hard put to find redeeming features in Watson's literary skills. The prose is "less than mediocre and the plot ridiculous" (loc. 1677); the author has no interest in the "minds or motivations of any of the characters" (loc. 1709); and "[p]roofreading errors were errant" (loc. 1709). ("Um," says the reader.) Hence my suggestion that the charitably-minded could read this novel's infelicities as Simmons' own homage to ACD's notorious disinterest in keeping his facts straight. Later, James dismisses Watson/Doyle as a "mediocre mind" (loc. 7577). If we are tempted to write this off as James being snooty--this is, after all, Henry James--Holmes agrees with him that the tales are "absurd" (loc. 1936) and describes "Copper Beeches" as a good case of "literary failure" (loc. 1968). Watson, it seems, has a habit of "try[ing] to arrange things into simpler stories of right and wrong" (loc. 2067); for Holmes, the tales falter not just at the level of factuality, but also as aesthetic objects. There is no nuance or moral sophistication--merely the equivalent of fictional McDonald's to chew on.* ("Um," says the reader once more, contemplating this novel's narrative flabbiness.) Once the protagonists have whacked Watson/Doyle, however, and consistently rendered W/D's admirers as silly fanboys and fangirls, we're left with a serious problem: why continue to read the Sherlock Holmes stories?
That's a problem that the novel, having raised it multiple times, fails to solve, or even appears to realize that it needs to solve. Instead, it detours into a different kind of self-reflexivity, anchored by Holmes' aforementioned existential crisis: "I am," Holmes portentously informs James, "the evidence has proven to me most conclusively, a literary construct. Some ink-stained scribbler's creation. A mere fictional character" (loc. 216). This "literary construct," one should note, is not Watson's literary construct--Holmes hypothesizes that Watson is also a character, not the author of Holmes' own reality--but rather the product of some unknown narrator. Which, in this novel, is true at the most basic and literal level, as neither Doyle nor Watson authors The Fifth Heart, but an unnamed narrator whom we may or may not identify with Simmons. We first meet this narrator explicitly in chapter nine, when he or she points out to the reader that "we have shifted point-of-view in the narrative" (loc. 992) from James to Holmes, even though the narrator finds this skill "both presumptuous and unrealistic" (loc. 992). In this era of literature as "mere entertainment," writers, the narrator informs us haughtily, "have begun leaping around between and into their characters' minds for no other reason than they can" (loc. 992). This is not just metafiction, but parodic metafiction, since it's highly unlikely that any reader would have cared about the shift in POV without the narrator's interruption--the reader is more likely to be exasperated by the narrator showing up for such a silly reason--and if this is a sign of literature's debasement, well, George Eliot would like a word. So, yes, Holmes is in a novel, written using familiar narrative conventions by a slightly pompous narrator, just as Henry James keeps refusing to play Holmes' "Boswell" (but winds up repeatedly tracked into Watsonian behavior anyway) and whines about acting like "a poorly drawn character in a sensationalist Wilkie Collins or H. Rider Haggard novel" (loc. 6116-48). (Simmons, of course, has already done Collins.) He certainly isn't acting much like anybody's idea of Henry James. Then again, that may be the point.
At a certain point, it's hard not to conclude that the novel is a more heavy-handed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (OK, Sherlock Holmes and Henry James are in a Novel). "The world works this way because the author makes it so" is, after all, one of that play's core points, even if it remains just beyond the characters' grasp. Samuel Clemens, also in the novel, points out to James that if Holmes is correct, "we are fictional characters in this instance as well," with Clemens functioning as "occasional comedy relief" (loc. 7577). Far from being particularly postmodern, such metafictional ruminations go back to Golden Age detective fiction (John Dickson Carr being particularly fond of such moves). The "God-writer," as Clemens calls him, can do whatever he pleases, whether that be making James play wannabe action hero or having Holmes refer to a wildly anachronistic "red delete button" (loc. 7836). Even a pudding of a historical novel, overegged with facts, is still a built universe that runs according to its own set of rules. Within that world, characters are "real" insofar as they go on being embodied in narrative. Unfortunately, the solution to Holmes' crisis comes via a stereotypical Magical Native American, who informs Holmes that the "six Grandfathers" enter reality by "telling their stories. By telling their own stories. But mostly by having others tell their stories [...] Telling them and believing them!" (loc. 8573-8603). The fictional Holmes, mourned by real people after his fake death, thus comes to life via the mutual belief of the God-writer and the audience, just as the narrator's own act of telling a (really too long) story about Holmes participates in this communal creative work. As long as pastichers, fanfic authors, and so on keep writing about Holmes, then he will continue to be, fiction or no. (Given how badly the novel tramples poor ACD, though, we still don't know why we should bother. At least Clemens has the grace to suggest that our narrator is not ACD's equal, which raises...other problems.) If only it did not take us over six hundred pages to reach this epiphany.
*--One of the difficulties is that Simmons and his characters alike are not particularly attentive to ACD's tales, which don't always point an easy moral (and while Watson, pace Henry James, always admires Holmes' skills, he's hardly an uncritical worshipper of Holmes' personality otherwise).