Erin has not read this book yet, but she surely feels like she has. That’s because Ben has, after each of the essays in the book (there are twelve), said, “Listen to this — you’re not going to believe it — I mean, this story is bananas,” and proceeded to recap the entire twisty, turny narrative for her. The first in the book, “Mysterious Circumstances,” is about the world’s most renowned Sherlock Holmes expert, Richard Lancelyn Green, who was found garroted in his apartment. Grann takes the reader into the obsessive world of Arthur Conan Doyle scholars while he himself tries to unravel the mystery of Green’s death, applying his own Sherlockian logic to deciphering what really happened in that apartment. (It remains unsolved, though Grann’s investigation leaves you convinced he has solved it.)
The second essay in The Devil & Sherlock Holmes, maybe its finest, is “Trial By Fire.” It is about Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas after a suspicious fire destroyed his house and killed his three daughters. (Terrible things happen in Grann’s stories; he is driven to the dark side of human nature, but what’s remarkable about his writing is how it brings order to chaos. His prose itself is a light in the dark.) Grann walks the reader through an arsonist’s accounting of the fire, then turns that initial analysis — which was the basis of Willingham’s conviction — on his head when another trained eye looks at the same damage and sees an entirely different story. Grann spent six months reporting the story. By the end the reader is saddened, shocked, outraged — and deeply moved.
Though these are two of the finest essays in the collection, each of them tells a story so peculiar (a firefighter at the Twin Towers who cannot remember whether he was a hero or a coward; a marine biologist driven, Ahab-like, to locate a giant squid; a 30-year-old con artist who poses as a teenager so he can be adopted; Ricky Henderson) that you have to grab someone close by and say, “Get a load of this.” Whether essays are your cup of tea or not (I, Ben, would say I am a good deal more enthused with essays than the average reader), this collection is a delight. If nothing else, pick up The Devil & Sherlock Holmes the next time you’re in the library or your local independent bookstore and give any of the twelve a read. I predict you’ll want more when you’re done.
Writing for Slate, Jonah Weiner has this appreciation of Grann’s storytelling skills. The bookseller in the first paragraph of Weiner’s piece says it all: “Yeah, man. David Grann.”
We also read and liked Grann’s The Lost City of Z. Review here.