The Devil & Sherlock Holmes is a collection of David Grann’s investigative journalism, covering a wide range of topics (though, as the subtitle of this book suggests, he is a bit fixated on stories of murder, madness and obsession, particularly the latter).
David Grann is very good at what he does, and this collection is proof of that. All the essays in this book have been previously published in newspapers and magazines, including the two essays that gave the inspiration for the mashed-up title (“Mysterious Circumstances: The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic” and “Giving ‘The Devil’ His Due: The Death-Squad Real Estate Agent”).
The first two essays were by far my favorites. The one detailing the life and death of the Sherlock Holmes expert struck exactly the right balance of seriousness and mystery for me, and the second one, while equally as compelling, also made me angry (it’s an essay about a man who was most likely executed for killing his three children while proof of his innocence was available to those in power). The rest of the essays were just a bit of a letdown after that opening twofer, but until the last part of the book, I still enjoyed almost all of them.
The book is split into three parts, all preceded by a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The first part concerns mysteries to which we might never know the full answers; the second, stories about individuals who pursue things obsessively (a man who won’t give up his search of the first live giant squid, another who can’t stop robbing banks, another a family of men who have all worked on the underground city of tunnels that supply NYC’s water, and perhaps the most notable, one about an infamous conman who won’t stop impersonating teenagers, etc.). The final section detailed stories of corruption and organized crime. The last section was by far my least favorite, and I kind of wish I would have skipped it. (Of note: All the essays in this section–one about the Aryan Brotherhood, another about the mafia in Youngstown, and the last detailing the exploits of a Haitian war criminal–were thoroughly written and researched, but I found them mostly very unpleasant to read due to my own personal tastes about the subject matter. I much prefer Grann writing about more humane topics.)
Overall, I’m glad I finally picked this up. I’ve liked Grann’s writing since I read The Lost City of Z, and I’ve been meaning to read this book for years now, just never got around to it. Very much looking forward to his second book-length investigation that was recently published.