Reviewed by Michael Paul Mason
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I learned my lesson after reading The Lost City of Z: use caution when approaching anything written by David Grann. It will take everything you’ve got to set down the work and walk away. Grann, a staff writer at the New Yorker, isn’t so much a verbal acrobat as he is a mesmerizing storyteller, and his newest work, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession solidifies his place among the best non-fiction writers of our time.
It isn’t a perfect work–I’ll offer a few gripes later in the review–but it’s going to be one of the best story collections of the year. The opening story, “Mysterious Circumstances,” for example, is inescapable. Grann introduces us to Richard Green, the world’s foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes. Green isn’t just an expert. He’s a fanatic–and Grann somehow instills that zeal into the story, so that we’re just as curious about the life of Arthur Conan Doyle as any other member of the peculiar Sherlock Holmes Society.
Before long, we find ourselves entranced in the curious characters that comprise the society, and then learn that Green himself has died, the apparent victim of a homicide. As we accompany Grann along on the investigation into Green’s death, we’re treated to a dive into the mind of Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Doyle.
But Grann isn’t just a keen reporter–he employs the subtlest literary touches that add texture and soul to his work. When we meet Steve O’Shea, the “Squid Hunter,” Grann notes that O’Shea’s glasses make his eyes look large, and he reeks of the sea. Then as we begin to learn more and more about the giant squid Architeuthis, the object of Shea’s obsession, Grann drops an occasional parallel between the squid and O’Shea, making us wonder if O’Shea himself isn’t part squid. Grann’s writing sings as well as it teaches.
For subscribers to the New Yorker, much of Grann’s writings in this collection will appear familiar: the report “Trial by Fire” is a nearly suffocating account of a death row inmate accused of killing his children; “City of Water,” tells of a dynasty of “sandhogs” that helped create New York City’s monumental underground waterways; and “The Brand,” is a chilling revelation about the far reaches of the Aryan Brotherhood. And this is where I have a beef with the collection.
Many of Grann’s works are dated, and there are only partial attempts to make them current. He published “The Squid Hunter” in 2004, and in this collection, he offers up a paragraph indicating that a giant squid was captured in 2006. What he fails to tell us is the far more fascinating news: that Squid Hunter O’Shea actually caught the larger, mythic colossus squid in 2007–a story deserving of at least a mention, if not several extra pages.
We spend time being charmed by a geriatric bank robber in “The Old Man and The Gun,” which ran in 2003, but aren’t treated to any news of his current condition. The post-scripts that Grann arbitrarily offers following several of the stories seem too anemic, and generally unworthy of the characters he has labored to introduce us to. If Grann fans are expected to pay extra for several stories that have already appeared in print, then it’s an editorial oversight to offer them such a meager nod.
Don’t let my complaints deter you, though. This is a book you shouldn’t miss, even if you are a subscriber to the New Yorker. The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is a collection of masterful reporting, and remains relentlessly engaging throughout. Just be careful: like a great writer, Grann will leave you begging for more.
Michael Paul Mason is the author of ‘Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury & Its Aftermath,’ published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His work appears in magazines and newspapers, including Discover, The Believer, and NYT. Learn more at michaepaulmason.com