Tuesday, January 30, 2018
history and mystery
One thing the internet is very good for is the fact you can look things up. There's no waiting, no trekking to the library and no wondering where you packed away your most recent compendium of the encyclopedia. In recent years having the ability to make random investigations has proved to be very beneficial when it comes to enhancing my enjoyment of novels. In fact sometimes I'll put a particular book aside while I follow electronic trails through the ether. While these rambles won't lead to a degree, never mind augment my future earning potential, the things I learn enlarge my understanding of many subjects I'd otherwise miss entirely.
For instance, although The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons provided more than enough entertainment by seamlessly combining melodrama and metaphysical speculation with a brilliantly detailed portrait of Gilded Age America, it also made me curious about an event that occurred in Chicago at the end of the 19th century - the Columbian Exposition World's Fair of 1893. This exhibition, also known as the White City, was built in honour of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America and was itself a major character in the latter part of the book. Other than having vague knowledge of the event I was unfamiliar with its extent and its importance. When I looked it up I was quite amazed by the pictures of the extravaganza that can be found on the web of a marvel that came and went six months after it opened to the public.
Pictured above is a close-up view of George Washington Ferris's wheel of steel, 250 feet in diameter. It carried 36 cars, each about the size of a Pullman train car, equipped with a lunch counter and with an overall capacity of 2,160. It propelled riders 300 feet in the sky over Jackson Park - a bit higher than the crown of the Statue of Liberty.
Considering the fact that most cities in those days were dark and dingy places the White City was a marvel to all the millions who visited the Fair that summer. The wikipedia link will tell you far more than I can - and besides, research is fun.
But I began this by mentioning The Fifth Heart, didn't I? Dan Simmons has written several very good historical novels * and this one begins in Paris early in 1893 when Henry James, the distinguished American author, is about to kill himself by plunging into the Seine, overcome by crippling depression. Just before stepping off le pont Neuf, he notices a man with an aquiline profile standing nearby; he quickly ascertains that the man is actually Sherlock Holmes, believed to have perished with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls two years earlier. James is shocked to learn that Holmes was himself on the verge of taking his own life - because the detective has discovered that he’s merely a “literary construct.” His evidence? The same inconsistencies in the original Conan Doyle stories that have entertained readers for a century.
Much against his will but unable to thwart Holmes's assumption they are now partners, James joins Holmes on a mission in America, where the Baker Street sleuth hopes to prove that historian Henry Adams’s emotionally fragile wife, Clover, was not a suicide but a murder victim in 1885 - and to thwart an international conspiracy involving an attempt to assassinate President Grover Cleveland at the opening of Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition.
For both Holmes and his unlikely partner, the path to personal redemption leads through these two very different mysteries.
note: At one point in the book James and Mark Twain discuss whether they’re characters in a novel and, if so, who might be the author. Twain says to James: “It’s almost certainly some lesser mind, lesser talent, than you, than me, even lesser than Arthur Conan Doyle, which is saying a lot. And it might be written thirty years hence, or fifty, or a hundred.” It was a wonderfully self-deprecating statement by Simmons.
* This one is good but even better is Drood and, according to a good friend, is The Terror. Since the latter is about the fate of the crews of two wooden sailing ships attempting to navigate the NW Passage in winter I shall wait for better weather before reading.