Many of the pieces in David Grann's fine collection of articles, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, read like detective stories, and it would be tempting to categorize this book, whose subtitle promises us "tales of murder, madness, and obsession," as a work of true crime, albeit one without the breathless exaggerations of that genre. In his first book, the best-selling The Lost City of Z, the writer offered up a true tale of deadly obsession for the ages: the attempts to find a legendary city in the Amazon, and the explorers who vanished searching for it. If that earlier book possessed a certain Conradian energy, these essays, most of which were published in the New Yorker, display a more mournful style—there's a melancholy undercurrent of horror here, a gift for locating and detailing the macabre. In "Trial by Fire," a Texas man with a violent past loses his three young children in a ghastly house fire, and is then convicted and executed for their murder, despite growing evidence that he may very well be innocent, the victim of outdated and inaccurate fire investigation methods. In "The Chameleon," a notorious French master of disguise poses as a long-lost American teen and is reunited with his "family" (really!), only to realize that some members of said family may have a very good idea what actually happened to the real missing kid. And in "True Crime," a strange, wannabe Polish cult novelist is convicted of the gruesome murder of a businessman, thanks in part to the murder's resemblance to incidents from his book.
Even when Grann steps away from tales involving actual deaths and accusations of murder, he's drawn to the grim side of human experience, as in his riveting account of the generations of "sandhog" workers who spend their lives toiling in New York's dangerous and dank underground City Tunnels, the vast system of waterways and pipelines that provide the city with the 1.3 billion gallons of water every day. A profile of Rickey Henderson, one of the most flamboyant baseball players of all time, turns out to be a sad look at his life in a bottom-of-the-barrel independent league at the age of forty-six, desperate to get back to the Majors. Even a story about an obsessive scientist hunting for the elusive giant squid, the stuff of elaborately produced Nature Channel documentaries, strikes a discordant tone: One of the main reasons the creature has never been caught alive is that it and its babies have a tendency to die right before anyone can capture them; the scientist's journey ends in failure.
There's a rectitude to Grann's writing that serves him well when mapping out these sad tales. The Victorians seem to be his touchstone; quotes from Sherlock Holmes stories introduce the various sections of the book (and the essay "Mysterious Circumstances" investigates the death, probably a suicide, of a noted Holmes scholar). Balancing his unflinching eye for reportorial detail with an undercurrent of compassion, the writer stakes out a rare middle ground between observation and reflection. Describing two fire investigators exploring a home where three children have just died horrible deaths, he writes, "The men slowly toured the perimeter of the house, taking notes and photographs, like archeologists mapping out a ruin." The words are precise, but there is humanity in the writing, and it's all the more impressive that Grann manages to evoke it without drawing any attention to himself; his tales are first-person ones, but they don't foreground the writer in that manner so popular among magazine editors today. Indeed, his selflessness as a writer, along with his gentle rectitude, cause him to bear a resemblance to another hero who never hogs the spotlight: Holmes's assistant, Watson. Rarely does modesty produce such stunning results.
Bilge Ebiri reviews and writes about film for New York magazine.