Good Minds Suggest: Dan Simmons's Favorite Fiction About Historical Characters

Posted by Goodreads on April 7, 2015

Dan Simmons shares book recommendations in honor of his new historical novel, The Fifth Heart, which combines the mystery-solving moxie of noted author Henry James and fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

In the last decade and more I've written quite a few "historical novels" about real people and events with fictional characters slipped into the interstices...the actual members of the doomed crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus in The Terror; Charles Dickens and his author-friend and frequent collaborator Wilkie Collins in Drood; George Armstrong Custer, his widow, Gutzon Borglum (the man who carved Mt. Rushmore), and many actual Lakota Sioux in Black Hills; George Mallory, Sandy Irvine, and other real climbers in The Abominable; and now, in my work-in-progress, Omega Canyon, Robert Oppenheimer and other real nuclear scientists in 1944-45 Los Alamos as well as real agents of the British SIS, SOE, ALSOS Group, OSS, Abwehr Intelligence, and other WWII agencies.

My hope for The Fifth Heart is that it honors the Holmesian canon while revealing some new and important aspects of our beloved detective, and at the same time gives readers a deeper glimpse into the personalities and realities of Henry James and some of his acquaintances, such as Henry Adams, John Hay, Teddy Roosevelt, Samuel Clemens, and others.

Of my two main characters—Sherlock Holmes and Henry James—James is by far the more secretive and complex of the two. My goal is, as Robert Frost said of blank verse, not "to play tennis without a net;" that is, in the case of my historical novels, to represent the historical personages and places accurately and not to have the main characters being somewhere and doing something else other than what history and biography tell us about them.

Here are some recommended books:

The Deep Blue Good-By and all the subsequent Travis McGee mysteries by John D. MacDonald

The books were published between 1964 and 1985. John D. MacDonald died in 1986, and both Stephen King and I were convinced that he'd written a "color-included" last book about McGee titled Framed in Black. He hadn't, but the last Travis McGee novel, The Lonely Silver Rain, includes a grace note that—perhaps by accident, perhaps not—ends the series beautifully.

John D. Macdonald's Travis McGee series may be the pinnacle of 1960s-through-1980s detective fiction, even though the main character, Travis (all suntanned six-foot-four of him), isn't technically a detective but rather a "salvage consultant." His business card says so. He finds lost people who need finding, the occasional stolen treasure, etc.

Every great noirish tough guy picks up a sidekick sooner or later (everyone but my favorite tough-guy character of all time, Richard Stark's Parker-the-thief), and usually they are, as someone suggested of the wonderful Dr. Watson, "foils" to whom the detective-hero can explain his arcane reasoning. (To be truthful, John Watson, M.D., insisted on having a life of his own—a life that included a mysterious number of wives.)

Not so with Travis McGee's adventures. His friend and sometime partner is Meyer, an entity unto himself. Where Travis is tall, muscled, tanned, and handsome, Meyer—a semiretired but internationally renowned economist—is small, hairy, scrawny, and wildly bearded. It's a running joke in the Travis McGee novels that beautiful women tend to fall for Meyer more often than Travis. While McGee lives at Slip F-18 at Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar yacht basin, in a houseboat won by Travis in a poker game and thus named The Busted Flush, Meyer lives at the same yacht basin in a boat he named the John Maynard Keynes. (It's a sad day in a later Travis McGee book when Meyer's boat is blown up.)

Meyer—as is true of many of the better second-bananas in fiction—is no mere foil. Besides his understanding of money, business, economics, psychology, and a dozen other fields, Meyer is almost as interesting (and as daring and trustworthy) as the amiable Travis McGee.

The Master by Colm Tóibín

This is a masterful novel by Tóibín about the later life of Henry James. It shows James's secrets and silences wonderfully while also exploring his inspirations for his famous novels and stories. There are goofs in the novel, but probably only ones that would be noticed by another writer who's researched Henry James for decades (instance: Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, would never have invited the flamboyant Oscar Wilde to her house to meet James, as happens in the novel—while staying with the Adamses in 1881, James had gone to a Washington, D.C., hotel to meet Wilde—and the "only one bed" tale of James's overt sexual encounter with young Oliver Wendell Holmes right after the Civil War is based on very shaky research indeed. (It's much more likely that James never physically realized his latent but central homosexual orientation.)

Still, [The Master] explores Henry James's complex and conflicted mind, as well as his confused heart, and is a marvelous reading experience—especially for those longtime readers of James's fiction who want to catch a glimpse of the inner man, whom James had worked so assiduously to keep secret.

Author, Author by David Lodge

Another novel about Henry James—this one focusing on James's life around 1895, not long after James's adventures with Sherlock Holmes in The Fifth Heart, at the time when James, despairing of making money or his name truly famous writing literary fiction, began to write for the English stage. In my opinion, this is somewhat equivalent to F. Scott Fitzgerald going to Hollywood in the 1930s to do rewrites on dismal scripts so that he could make "some real money." (Stewart O'Nan's brand-new book, West of Sunset, looks at this tragic time in Fitzgerald's life.)

James was convinced that he had a flair for theatrical writing and that he would make a fortune; he was wrong on both counts.

The center of Lodge's novel is the 1895 London premiere of James's major play Guy Domville. Premiere night was a disaster and a tragedy for James. His prose, so artful on the page, just didn't work in the fast-patter universe of the theater, despite all of James's rewrites on the script: The leading lady wore a hoopskirt-style dress and hat so large that she had to creep through the set's front door sideways, and when James was called out onto the stage to take a curtain call, he was booed and jeered at by parts of the audience.

The reasons for this jeering are still not certain, although Colm Tóibín, David Lodge, and even James's ultimate biographer—Leon Edel, in the fourth volume of James's biography—make that terrible premiere night of Guy Domville a central event in their writings. It's true that while James himself had tried to "pack the house" with his rich and famous literary friends and worthies (including some with titles—it was truly a star-spangled night), someone else seems to have packed the balcony seats with London street toughs. It could well have been enemies of the show's troupe manager and star of Guy Domville, George Alexander. At any rate, Alexander was cruel enough to beckon James out onto the stage to hear the "Author! Author!" and cheers from the expensive seats, but much louder, the jeers and boos from the balcony and other cheap seats.

The story goes that when Alexander has Guy Domville—who is giving up a woman and his life to become a priest—says James's line—"I am, sir, the last of the Domvilles," some hooligan from the balcony shouted, "It's about damn time!"

This night left a scar on James for the rest of his life.

The Women by T.C. Boyle

This is a great recent example of an excellent historical novel. The theme—about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and various wives and women—is a very good one. I ought to know—I wanted to write it myself.

My long, long interest in Wright and a personal library of books about him had led me to plan a historical novel about certain parts of Wright's life, and I'd decided after long deliberation that the tale would have to be told through the eyes and hearts of the various women in his life—murdered, crazy, exotic, and demanding.

T.C. Boyle beat me to it in The Women. And he probably (maybe, possibly) did a better job with it than I would have. He inserted a fictional long-term Taliesin disciple of Wright's, a certain Sato Tadashi, who, decades after his apprenticeship with Wright had ended and the great man had died, and with the help of his granddaughter's sort-of writer American husband with the improbable name of Seamus O'Flaherty (!), tells the story of the architect and his women with a certain loving attachment (and cultural detachment) that makes the tale work very well.

Also, in The Women Boyle tells the tales of Wright's women out of chronological order, so that by the time he gets to the tale of Mamah Beckwith, the first (married) woman for whom Wright abandoned his first wife and eight children, the ax murders and deliberate arson of the first Taliesin in which Mamah and her lovely daughter were murdered carries an extra-strong punch.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Hundreds of authors have tried to "finish" Drood (the murder-mystery novel that Dickens was working on at the time of his death)—working from the complex clues to the never-reached finalé—but it's my opinion that none of them got it right. (There was also a fun Broadway play of Drood in which the audience got to choose among the primary suspects, and the actors then played out that ending.)

I don't think the guesses have been right, because after years of pondering Dickens and Drood, I vaingloriously believe that I came up with Dickens's real surprise ending. Perhaps prompted to write the book by the sales successes of his onetime friend (and ultimate laudanum addict) Wilkie Collins's A Woman in White, I think that Dickens wanted his first all-mystery murder novel to be the ultimate such novel in the mystery field.

And I think that if he'd lived to finish it, it might well have been such.

I won't spell out the details of my proposed Dickensian ending, but suffice it to say that—as in the earlier sections of the unfinished manuscript—it involves telepathy, twins, lots and lots of opium, and two complete personalities in one man's mind. I think we would have had a wonderfully subtle and literary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde decades before Robert Louis Stevenson published his version.

But that's all I'll say about that subject (and I think I said too much). Still, even as a fragment with the mystery-solution totally missing, Charles Dickens's Drood is wonderful reading.

I hope that these recommendations may lead you to some wonderful reading—if you haven't already read them all—and I hope you'll enjoy personalities, secrets, mysteries, and solutions of The Fifth Heart.

Vote for your own favorites on Listopia: Fictionalized Accounts of Real People

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Emily (new)

Emily Brown Thanks, it's always great to hear what a favorite writer likes to read!! I can't tell you how much I enjoyed "Drood" and "The Terror". I need to pick up your other books soon.

message 2: by Frances (new)

Frances Thanks for the list - will definitely check out John D. MacDonald.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Thank you - I liked your recommendations. You do more than a few brief sentences that are vague and seem to actually know the content you're recommending.

message 4: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Squire Just wanted to mention that Dan Simmons's claim to have come up 'with Dickens's real surprise ending' to 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' has a competitor. Actually, I don't claim to have the solution, but 'The Last Chapter' (available at is absolutely faithful to the story as told by Dickens, provides a distinct perspective on the ‘very interesting and curious idea’ envisaged by the novelist for the ending of his tale, and concludes with a mega-surprise of its own in the last chapter.

Florence J. Rowlett Loved the Travis McGee books by MacDonald. My late husband introduced them to me and I have recently started re-reading them.

message 6: by Kansas (last edited May 01, 2015 05:27AM) (new)

Kansas thanks to your list i have just discovered Colm Toibin and his great "The Master", it will be one of my great books this year. And now I'm reading The Fifth Heart :-)

back to top