Following in the Spirit of Sherlock Holmes – A Review of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann

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I think it is safe to say that no detective inspires as much devotion as Sherlock Holmes. Despite – or perhaps because of – his fictional nature, he has been a source of inspiration for many people, not just sleuths, but truth-seekers and eccentrics of all stripes. If one has ever had the burning desire to get to the bottom of a mystery, whatever mystery that might be, or has had to live or chosen to live in a manner that is atypical of the norm, then one can find something in common with Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character.

It was with this concept in mind that David Grann selected the stories (and forgive this conceit of terminology: I know they are properly called “articles,” but Grann’s writing seems to preclude the use of something so clinical) for his book The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. A journalist writing for The New Yorker, I’d read his first book, The Lost City of Z, last year and found it to be an incredibly enjoyable read. It was because of the good memories I have of The Lost City of Z that I chose to read The Devil and Sherlock Holmes – that, and the promise of the stories within: twelve in all, with the book divided into three parts of four stories each. Those stories all share some connection to one another, usually made clear in the first story of every section. Each individual story is actually an article that Grann has written for The New Yorker or other publications, some of which have been updated for publication in this anthology.

Despite the title, however, there is only one story with a direct connection to Sherlock Holmes: the first story of Part One, “Mysterious Circumstances,” which is about the life and death (but mostly the death) of Richard Lancelyn Green, who up until he died was considered “the world’s foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes.” The rest deal with other, but no less interesting, subjects: a French con artist who specialized in impersonating children in “The Chameleon”; the mysterious Sand Hogs of New York in “City of Water;” a dapper old man who was one of the foremost stick-up artists of his day in “The Old Man and the Gun;” and a Polish author accused of murder based on his novel in “True Crime,” to name a few. Each one of those stories could be connected back to Sherlock Holmes, whether it was because of a central character obsessed with something, or because of a mystery that needed answers, or sometimes both.

Some of the reviews I have read have complained about the title being somewhat misleading, claiming that it is nothing more than a marketing hook to grab attention, though it does not deliver what it promised. To a certain extent, I will agree with reviewers who say that there is something misleading about the title: after all, with a title like The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, one might expect a Holmes pastiche, not a collection of newspaper articles. However, in the Introduction, I feel that Grann explains just fine his reasons for connecting his anthology to Sherlock Holmes, and a relatively insightful reader should not have any trouble finding the connections, either. If one is familiar with Sherlock Holmes (and by this I mean with the Conan Doyle version of him, not the BBC’s Sherlock version, much less Guy Ritchie’s version), then one can easily see how these stories might be connected to Sherlock Holmes in some way – not least in Grann’s style of journalism, which involves rooting out the facts as best as he can.

Of course, the connection is harder to see in some stories than in others. In “City of Water,” for instance, it can be difficult to see how the Sand Hogs, that legendary group of men who claim to have “dug everything deeper than a grave” in New York City, might be connected to Sherlock Holmes. But upon reading the story, it becomes clear that the Sand Hogs Grann speaks to, particularly the older ones, are idiosyncratic in a way that Holmes was idiosyncratic – primarily in their devotion to their work. To be sure, moving (sometimes running pell-mell) through Victorian London’s streets in pursuit of clues and a criminal is nothing like digging a tunnel hundreds of feet below New York’s street level, but both jobs do take a special kind of mindset, a special kind of person, to be able to keep at the job each and every day.

Equally difficult to connect to Holmes would be the Aryan Brotherhood, described in “The Brand.” What could one of the United States’ most notorious criminal gangs have to do with Holmes, who is famous for his pursuit of justice? In this case, it is not so much a connection to Holmes himself as to John Watson: Grann’s storytelling in this article (and in the others as well, but more so here) follows a general pattern established by Conan Doyle – and therefore, it might be said, by Watson – in the telling of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Another connection is to Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty, to be found in one of the leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood: as cold and calculating a mind as there ever was, and all the more terrifying because of it.

Of all the stories, though, my favorite is definitely “True Crime” – perhaps because it is the most Holmes-like of all the stories in the book. Set in Poland, “True Crime” is like any Holmes story in that it begins with a seemingly-unsolvable crime: in this case, the murder of Dariusz Janiszewski, whose body was fished from the Oder River after being discovered by a fisherman. An investigation is launched, but it meets with little success – until it is picked up, three years later, by Jacek Wroblewski, a police investigator with a penchant for working late at night and a taste for hunting down criminals. Following the rather thin trail of clues, he makes a breakthrough: he finds Janiszewski’s cell phone being sold online by one Krystian Bala. Further investigation leads Wroblewski to Bala’s novel, titled Amok: a book with such twisted and depraved content that Wroblewski thinks Bala may have killed Janiszewski after all.

What makes the story so interesting to me is because it has to do with that fine line between a book’s content, and the writer’s psychology. Some schools of literary criticism think it is an enormous error to imagine that there is any connection at all between the author and a book’s contents, saying that the two are completely separate entities, while others believe that there is some connection, though how much can vary depending on which school of criticism one is using. As a reader and a writer, I am aware of the tension between book and author: while I am entirely aware that any text I write will reflect at least some of my own beliefs and outlook on the world, it is also true that my writing does not reflect myself in its entirety: after all, does writing about a murder mean a writer has committed murder? If that were the case, then hundreds of mystery and thriller writers ought to be put in jail, or at least carefully monitored. Another good example would be the case of Orson Scott Card: his Ender series is one of the best series in science fiction, but many of his readers also loathe the sort of politics he has chosen to align himself with.

And it is here, in looking at this gap between author and novel, that the excellence of Grann’s writing comes to the fore: he manages to strike a balance between Wroblewski’s accusations and Bala’s beliefs regarding the book’s content. Bala contends that he is no criminal, claiming that the book is nothing but fiction, while Wroblewski argues that, through the evidence he has gathered, the content might not be entirely fictional, either. I enjoyed the tension Grann’s writing created, one moment thinking the prosecution was stupid to believe that anything in a work of fiction could conclusively prove the guilt of its author, and yet also thinking that maybe, just maybe, Wroblewski may have a point. Grann’s conclusion to the story is equally gray, which is something I appreciate and enjoy.

Overall, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is proof-positive of Grann’s talent as a writer: not just in the longer, more involved format he uses in The Lost City of Z, but in the shorter format he uses for his articles. On the surface, the stories in this book might seem to have nothing in common with the Devil or Sherlock Holmes, but reading them proves otherwise. In “Mysterious Circumstances,” the last line of the article is a quote from Priscilla West, sister of Richard Green: “Unlike in detective stories, we have to live without answers.” This is something that Grann proves, time and again,throughout the course of the book: this is the “Devil” in the title, that dogs any and all investigations and attempts to understand anything – or anyone, for that matter. And though Grann is no Sherlock Holmes, he does his best to illuminate the grayness at the heart of the stories he’s collected, attempts to make sense of what would otherwise be an incomprehensible mess – something that is, in many ways, the true core of what makes Sherlock Holmes who he is, and in whose footsteps Grann does his best to follow.

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