The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession
( Doubleday, 2010)
Two blocks north of Washington Square Park, sitting at the bar of the Knickerbocker with a bottomless glass of wine on a wet weekday afternoon, the author of six novels, five poetry collections, and editor of a nearly 30-year-old literary journal tries to reason out a solution to the following mystery: how did nonfiction become so much more popular than fiction? Like many others, his first hypothesis is that it has something to do with September 11. In a New York Times article published in December 2005, one journalist wrote of a trend that “began after 9/11” when “a large segment of readers seemed to give up on fiction, flocking instead to nonfiction works.” As David Rosenthal, the publisher and executive vice president of Simon & Schuster put it at the time, “If there's any theme to the year, it's that people only want to read the truth.”
Despite fitting the theme—my nonfiction to fiction ratio for the last couple of years probably stands at six to one—I’m of little assistance to the editor, save with the wine. In lieu of silence, he adds a few more hypotheses pertaining to technological innovation: the Internet (a thirst for information), the 24-hour news media (a need for narrative supplement), a sense of individual alienation (a yearning for connection). Well-reasoned, and yet I am not convinced. Trends aside, I know that my own preference for nonfiction is based on something more elementary, a belief that was best expressed by none other than the fictional Sherlock Holmes when he said to Watson, beside the fireplace and thus on a day perhaps not unlike this, “My dear fellow…life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”
If you don’t believe the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction, it’s probably because you haven’t been given all the details—“the vital essence of the whole matter,” according to Holmes. “If we could fly out of that window hand in hand,” he says to Watson, “hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events…it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.” Compelling nonfiction thus relies on the intelligent and intrepid detective who, with a knack for storytelling, can reveal the strange coincidences and wonderful chains of events taking place behind the daily news briefs and textbook accounts of history. If nonfiction is faring so well right now, it may simply be due to the fact that there are so many good detectives.
David Grann’s latest collection of stories, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, is only the most recent work of nonfiction to garner the high praise of Holmes’s maxim. In 2003, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (different devil, different details) was lauded in the Times as having “the dramatic effect of a novel…And it doesn't hurt that this truth really is stranger than fiction.” In 2006, a reviewer of James Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer wrote, “This gripping account…is truly stronger than fiction.” Newsweek last year praised Dave Cullen’s Columbine as “a nonfiction book that has…the complexity of a Shakespearean drama.” The reverence for the fantastic nature of the real extends to everything from histories of American foreign policy to the latest exposé on Wall Street’s financial crisis. Yet even among these more ambitious achievements, Grann’s stories—most of them about criminals and conmen—are in a league of their own. A journalist-detective par excellence, he reveals truths not only stranger than fiction, but more poetic, more frightening, and more sublime as well.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Grann treats his job as Holmes did his. Beginning with “a tip from a friend, a reference buried in a news brief,” he sets about trying “to unearth the facts and to arrange them into a sensible narrative, a logical chain of events.” More often than not, this takes him to either a courtroom or a prison cell, but it also sees him into cyclones off the coast of Australia and down the labyrinthine network of water tunnels underneath New York City. The 12 stories collected here (nine of which were first published in The New Yorker, where Grann is a staff writer) appear under the umbrella of “tales of murder, madness, and obsession”—a loose heading that enables Grann to include terrifying pieces about crime and punishment alongside a profile of fallen baseball star Ricky Henderson (the unspoken suggestion is that Henderson’s obsession with baseball, and himself, qualifies; either way, the story is so damn good that no one will care). No matter the subject, Grann fashions facts into a narrative filled with plot twists more remarkable than anything Conan Doyle could have possibly imagined.
As if to prove the point, Grann’s first story is about the mysterious death of the world’s most renowned Sherlock Holmes scholar, Richard Lancelyn Green, who had been working for years to gain access to Conan Doyle’s long-lost papers when he was found garroted in his basement. Another story, about a Polish intellectual whose violent, postmodern novel is used to convict him of murder, similarly demonstrates reality’s ability to upstage anything that even the most avant-garde mind can invent. Other stories include that of a U.S. Congressman’s involvement with the Youngstown Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood’s infiltration of the American prison system, and a murderous Haitian paramilitary officer’s life as a real estate agent among the very refugees in whom he had instilled so much fear. And then there are those pieces about Ricky Henderson, New York’s tunnels, and the squid hunt. For Grann, as for Holmes, the mysterious wonders of the world can be found anywhere. The only thing missing in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is Grann’s story about John McCain and his fall from the moral high ground during the 2008 presidential campaign —probably the best profile of a losing candidate in at least 35 years.
Grann’s greatest achievement, however, is included in the collection. “Trial By Fire,” which recently won the George Polk award for Magazine Writing, tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who in 1992 was sentenced to death for burning his children alive by setting fire to his house. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of fire investigators, who detailed over “twenty indicators” of arson. The trial, which took place in Corsicana, Texas, lasted just two days. More than a decade later, while Willingham sat in prison awaiting lethal injection, another fire investigator received Willingham’s file and in a matter of weeks was able to disprove all 20 arguments. Despite the new evidence, Willingham’s petition to the Board of Pardons and Paroles was denied. After his death in February 2004, questions about the case began to surface in the media, and the following year Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. As Grann writes, “There is a chance…that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the ‘execution of a legally and factually innocent person.’” Should that happen, it would be due in no small part to the exposure brought on by Grann’s efforts as a journalist.
If there’s a problem with this collection of stories, it is that it is a collection. Grann’s pieces are so thrilling that they deserve to be read one at a time, at an interval of at least a day. Ideally, they would be happened upon accidentally at the pace dictated by their publication in various periodicals. To read them like that is to be reminded, just often enough, how strange an enigma is man, as Holmes put it. Read together, all at once, the extraordinary begins to seem ordinary and the plot twists lose their emotional pull. For anyone looking for an equally gripping work of greater length, I would recommend Grann’s first book, The Lost City of Z, which has been sitting on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list for over six weeks now; further proof of Grann’s preeminence in the stranger-than-fiction department.
Back at the Knickerbocker, we are joined in our conversation by a New York University literature professor who has been sitting at the end of the bar. “These things go back and forth,” he insists, before insisting that he buy us each a drink. Of course he’s right: the public preference for nonfiction is only temporary. Moreover, it would be a gross mistake to ignore all the contemporary works of fiction that are also faring well. (I, for one, must admit that my favorite book from the last decade is an almost thousand-page piece of pure, unadulterated invention.) In the end, it was probably misguided to set the two against one another in the first place. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” Mark Twain agreed, “but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Twain, of course, was a master of both genres, and as readers we’re never asked to choose between floating up the Mississippi or following the Equator. As the literature professor says to the editor and I, while raising his glass, “The important thing is to always have a book in your hand.”