In his recent book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, David Grann has put together a collection of journalism in three parts. Each is comprised of four narratives, several of which have been published before in various journalistic magazines. Working with the old axiom that truth is stranger than fiction, Grann proceeds to tell fantastic and true tales from across the globe.
Those readers seeking essays about literature will be disappointed as the title is somewhat misleading. Aside from the first story, which deals with the death of a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, the only other regards to literature are the quotes from Sherlock Holmes stories given underneath the beginning of each new section. What are true to the title though, are the accounts of individuals who embody at least one of those three things: murder, madness or obsession.
Of the twelve narratives, eight of them deal with some sort of criminal activity. In cases such as that of “The Chameleon,” there is the story of a man who has been hunted across the world for impersonating lost or fictitious children. “Crimetown U.S.A.” is an in-depth look at the rise of the mob in Youngstown, Ohio. This particular piece reveals how corruption can be seeded in our society as the mob influence extended all the way to a U.S. Congressmen from the area. “The Old Man and the Gun” tells of an elderly fugitive, desperate to transform himself into a legend.
The four other pieces, while not dealing with crime, are still as interesting and well reported. “Which Way Did He Run” is about a firefighter who survived 9/11 but is suffering from amnesia surrounding the events. As he tries to piece together what happened, the firefighter struggles with guilt, questioning why he lived when other members of his company perished in the tragedy. “The Squid Hunter” is about a man trying to capture a living giant squid, and “City of Water” is about the men who risk their lives to build the tunnels for New York’s underground water system. The last story of these four, “Stealing Time,” tells the story of a former major league baseball player who won’t accept the fact he should retire. This is a moving piece that illustrates how time catches up with everyone, even those who are the best.
These four essays are the best in the collection. While they lack the macabre details of criminal activity the other tales have, they hold a sort of poignant simplicity. Each of these four tales portrays the interviewees as somewhat obsessed: consumed by their individual interests, careers and passions. It’s an accurate portrayal of what, at heart, everyone is like.
As a collection, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes emphasizes the bizarre events of reality. As the title seems to suggest, there is a fine balance between those who embody good and evil, i.e. Sherlock Holmes and the Devil. That theme is evident where conflict is created between those committing crimes and those responsible for bringing them to justice. Even in the case of the non-crime-related narratives, there is conflict inherent in the struggles of the main characters.
While some of the tales do seem a little longer than necessary – this is especially true in “City of Water” and “The Brand” – they are not boring. Nonfiction always flirts a little more with dullness because of the necessity of detail, but Grann skillfully avoids any major drawn-out parts. So, while at times the action seems to drag a little, it is only because of the depth of the research.
Through that research and competent interviews with multi-faceted personalities, Grann demonstrates his ability; it is this talent and hard work which makes his journalistic writing so effective. The topics covered in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes range all over the map both in subject matter and actual location. Written at various times over the course of the last decade, the broad range of stories conveying similar issues will appeal to readers of all stripes. These thought-provoking real life dramas are as intriguing as anything one is bound to read about.