Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, by David Grann

and now for something completely different. I've had my eye on this book ever since I learned that it was going to be published, and probably pre-ordered it months ago.  The author, David Grann, is the author of Lost City of Z, one of my all-time favorite books. Grann isn't a novelist, but rather he writes wonderful essays, and has been featured in the New Yorker.  So you should assume immediately that this book isn't going to be another Sherlock Holmes pastiche, because it's not. Instead, it's a book of essays, but don't let that put you off. It is absolutely delightful.

Grann has this thing about people who are absolutely obsessed about what they do, a fact you already know if you've read his splendid Lost City of Z.  In this book, he takes his readers on a journey through a dozen different profiles.

Structured in three parts, all headed by quotations from various Sherlock Holmes stories, the first section is subtitled "Any Truth is Better Than Infinite Doubt." Here's the guy whose lifelong ambition was to write the ultimate and the definitive biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. After there was a dispute over some of Sir Arthur's papers, the subject of this essay was found dead under some murky circumstances. Was it murder or suicide?  Then there's the incredibly sad and horrifying case of the Texas man who may or may not have set his own home on fire, killing his children, and who may have paid the ultimate price due to the zealousness of certain arson investigators. The third entry in this section is the odd story of a French man that reads along the lines of Tey's Brat Farrar or even the movie "The Changeling," leading into the strange account of a man who may or may not have been guilty of murder, based on a book he wrote.  Finally, there's the story of a firefighter who lost all memory of what happened to him on 9/11 as his unit went into the towers before they collapsed.

Part Two, entitled "A Strange Enigma is Man," contains four stories: one about one man's obsession with giant squids, one about the Sandhogs deep under the streets of New York City, one about a man whose life was spent as a criminal, and the fourth relating to why a championship baseball player won't give up.

Part Three, "All that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe," contains three essays.  The first of these is about the Aryan Brotherhood and how it got its start, as well as its impact on prisons and law enforcement.  The second focuses on Youngstown, Ohio, a city long under mob control. The final essay in this section (and in the book) stopped me cold. It focuses on a known Haitian political and death-squad leader who somehow ended up in New York as a real-estate agent. Even though the US government knew that this guy was an assassin, for "political" reasons, he's still free here in our country. If this one doesn't creep you out about the political system in our country, nothing will.

Grann is an absolutely fabulous writer and his essays will keep you interested up to the minute you turn the last page. His approach is different and definitely holds your attention, and the added bonus is that you get a chance to learn a lot about things you probably had no clue about otherwise. I can most highly recommend this book and this author. And as a sidebar, if you have not yet read his other book, run, do not walk, and go get it.

also reviewed at Book Review Party Wednesday, 4/6/2010


  1. I have really been wanting to read this and your review makes it imperative!

  2. This sounds pretty interesting and very different to what I would normally read. it appeals to me because I love Sherlock Holmes books

  3. Ooh! Thank you, I missed this one somehow and I have to read it. The Lost City of Z was a favorite of mine last year and this one sounds great.

  4. It is just one of those excellent books that come along once in a while that should not be missed. Thanks for your comment!

  5. This sounds so good! What an excellent review and now I want to read it as well! :)

  6. I saw this book yesterday at Borders and almost purchased..now I'm sorry I didn't after reading your review. It's a problem easily fixed (getting out my wallet now).

  7. Thank you, Rob and lovely to meet you! I just added myself as a follower of your blog and am definitely looking forward to spending some time in perusal.


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