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.


  1. Good one!
    Did you ever read Fruttero & Luccentini: "The D. Case: The Truth About the Mystery of Edwin Drood?"

    1. As Henry James would have responded, 'I have not yet had that pleasure.'

  2. Hi Susan
    Fascinating isn’t it to reflect on that brief so called Gilded Age of America. There also seemed to be an air of optimism and recovery then from the civil war which possibly added impetus to the staging of the Columbian Exposition World's Fair of 1893. I read there was 27 million visitors – remarkable wasn’t it!! What might have been described then as the emergence of the machine age with inventions just prior to the event such as the electric motor, Kodak Box Camera and the Automobile? They could even enjoy cans of soup and many more consumer goods as machines made fresh inroads into a new way of life in the cities. A brief period before the ideals of humanity in peaceful co - existence pictured in art and literature were torn down in the fury of war that ensued only a couple of decades ahead.
    Best wishes

    1. Hi Lindsay,
      It is fascinating and ironic besides - after all, gilded is not golden. The fabulous White City facades were built from wood and steel frames that were covered in staff, a stucco-like combination of plaster and jute fiber, and painted a gleaming white. When I saw the pictures of those grand exteriors, inspired by European architecture and Beaux Arts, I was sad to learn they weren't meant to last. Still, the inventions were real enough as you noted.
      Even then the First World War was already on the horizon. We may be an inventive species but, in the aggregate, we're not at all wise.
      All the best

  3. Most interesting. My fascination, of course, started with Erik Larson "The Devil in the White City half of which included Olmsted and the construction sage. The half still creeps me out about the devil who murdered all those young women...:(

    1. I knew there had been a series of murders connected to the fair, Ray, but haven't read more about them; there's already more than enough contemporary bad news.
      This particular book by Dan Simmons takes a more light-hearted approach than is frequently the case with his work.