Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 11, 2019


The Fifth Harmonic by F. Paul Wilson (2003)

I read so you don't have to.

Will Burleigh was an old-fashioned type of doctor:  dedicated to his patients and available at all hours of the day,   He had a single-doctor practice because no other doctor he had worked with could meet his expectations.  His marriage became a casualty of his obsession, his daughter almost a stranger.  Then he was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of throat cancer.  The treatment would include heavy radiation and radical surgery that would leave him disfigured and nothing could guarantee that the cancer, which he called Captain Carcinoma, would not kill him.

Will refused treatment, sold his practice, retired, and waited for a certain death that would take his life in months, if not sooner.

Savanna Walters was one of Will's early patients.  He had treated her over the years until an abnormality in her blood count and a bone marrow biopsy showed her to have a virulent form of leukemia.  He referred her to an oncologist, expecting never to see her again -- he chances were that bleak.  Then Savanna, radiantly healthy, came to see him after hearing about his illness.  She claimed to have been cured.  She told him that a healer had helped cure her and urged him to see that healer.  Will checked with Savanna's oncologist who told him that Savanna had stopped treatment after one round of chemotherapy and never returned.  That she is healthy now must be due to an extremely rare spontaneous remission.

Will is a pragmatic realist and holds no truck with healer mumbo-jumbo.  Still, after a few days, he goes to see the healer, bringing with his all of his doubts.

The healer is a woman called Maya, self-possessed, calm, and attractive.  He meets her in a fairly stark room filled with lit candles and crystals.  Maya offers no guarantee that he can be healed.  If he is cured it will be with five "harmonics" -- four of which are represented by metal tines created long ago and personifying earth, fire, water, and air.  The fifth harmonic?  Will is told that that will be evident once he has the first four.  There is a hitch:  Will must divest himself of his money.  After liquidating his assets, Will must give half to charity and leave the other half in trust for his daughter should he die within a few months; if Will is alive after two years, the money in the trust will go to Maya.  Also, getting each tine will involve a physical test which must happen in Central America where the ancient Mayans ruled.

Will figures this whole thing is a scam and leaves.  He begins to go about his last few days of life, determined to experience everything he had sacrificed for his career.  As the days and weeks pass and as the tumor in his throat tightens, Will finds he is not enjoying anything.  Although he does not believe in any of the "new age" guff that Maya spouted, he decides that he might as well go on an adventure before he dies.  Heck, he could die at any point in this "adventure."

Somewhere in Central America, Will must retrieve the first four harmonics by himself.  One is in a cave surrounded by shifting sand.  Another is by a recent lava flow.  A third is thirty feet underwater and guarded by a shark.  The fourth is on top of a large cliff that Will must scale.  Getting each tine will drain Will's physical resources and already Will has a hard time swallowing food and even liquids.  It is getting difficult to speak.  Captain Carcinoma is getting much bolder and more powerful.

And what about Maya?  Will had hired a private detective to investigate her.  He finds that she is half-French, half-Mayan.  Photographs of someone with her name and likeness from the 1940s are found.  Maya's mother, perhaps?  Well, the reader knows it's not.

And that's the trouble with his book.  It is very predicable.  And there's a lot of philosophical discussion between Will and Maya, intending (I'm sure) to deepen the mysteries of the plot.  The ending is telegraphed and has all the subtlety of a Trump press conference.

Wilson has produced a remarkable body of work, including his The Secret History of  Mankind, which includes his Adversary Cycle, his chronicles of Repairman Jack, and his recent ICE trilogy.  The Fifth Harmonic, however, fizzles in a way that makes it somewhat uncomfortable to read.  It has its exciting passages, to be sure, but as a whole the book lacks...something.  I suspect that something is the author's belief in the story.  It's as if he decided one day to write a new age thriller and, well, it's written; time to move on.


  1. Sometimes, the initial notion that had one write the outline and sample chapters goes by the boards, and there's still that contract to fulfill...or the book the editor or publishers or agent wanted a lot more than the writer did...or the book that fills the hole in the several-year plan while one waits for the better idea...

  2. Your sacrifice is much appreciated!