March 2010

Tales worthy of the great detective

By David Grann
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Sherlock Holmes knew two things to be true: that noticing small, seemingly inconsequential details can lead one to larger discoveries, and that real life spawns situations more curious than mere fiction can. These concepts are the thematic backbone of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, David Grann’s collection of 12 previously published articles concerning the weird and the wonderful in human conduct. In each case, Grann brings a reporter’s eye and investigative tenacity to his subject. He is, in essence, both the probing Holmes and his dutiful note-taker, Dr. Watson.

Suitably enough, in his opening chapter, Grann takes the reader into the rarefied world of Sherlock Holmes scholars and enthusiasts who treat Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imaginary detective as if he had actually existed. Perhaps the most brilliant of these was Richard Lancelyn Green. Fascinated by the figure of Holmes since childhood, Green became an acknowledged expert on Doyle’s life and methods. He was trying desperately to prevent a treasury of Doyle’s papers from being auctioned off when, on the morning of March 27, 2004, police broke through the locked door of his London residence and “found the body of Green lying on his bed, surrounded by Sherlock Holmes books and posters, with a cord wrapped around his neck. He had been garroted.” Murder or an elaborate suicide?

Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Lost City of Z, also chronicles another mysterious death in Poland and a novel that seems to bear on it. He examines the detective work that led to the prosecution of a man in Texas for killing his children in a house fire, comes face to face with leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and hangs out with a purported Haitian torturer. Then there are his tales of obsession—the adult Frenchman who repeatedly passed himself off as a child; the relentless searchers for giant squids; and the generations of “sand hogs” who keep New York’s water flowing.

The author’s dramatic pacing and attention to colorful details would make Dr. Watson proud. No doubt the persnickety Holmes would approve, too.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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