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Audiobook Review: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann

Audiobook Review: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann post image

Title: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession
Author: David Grann
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction/Essays/Audiobook
Year: 2010
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★½☆

One Sentence Summary: A collection of David Grann’s previously published essays that cover a range of murder, madness, and obsession.

One Sentence Review: Individually, each of the essays is a lot of fun to read, but the collection as a whole seems a little thematically uneven.

Long Review: When I stumbled across The Devil and Sherlock Holmes on the audiobook shelf at my local library, I was really excited! I listened to one of Grann’s earlier books, The Lost City of Z, on audio and thought it was great — Mark Deakins is a stellar narrator and I liked Grann’s writing style. And since I was planning a few odd-length car trips, I thought an essay collection would hold my attention but not be so plot driven I’d get lost.

The book is a collection of Grann’s essays that were previously published in The New Yorker and other magazines. Given that’s where they were originally published, all of the essays were very good. However, as a whole I thought the book was thematically uneven. The stories Grann tells cover the entire range of the subtitle — murder, madness, and obsession — but don’t really feel cohesive. It leans heavily towards true crime, with a heavy dash of murder, but there are also essays on civil engineering, giant squid, and a fire fighter with post-9/11 amnesia.

In some senses, this might be a good thing — readers with a paper copy can skip in and out of different stories, reading the ones they like and skipping what isn’t their taste. But on audio that was a challenge and I just ended up listening to all of them.

But, enough about the collection as a whole. I want to highlight a three of my favorite essays from the collection, “Trial by Fire,” “Which Way Did He Run?” and “The Chameleon.”

“Trial by Fire” is about a young man from Texas named Cameron Todd Willingham who was convicted of murdering his three children by burning down their family home. In the essay, Grann uses Willingham as a way to explore both the history of arson investigations and what it means to be on death row in Texas. I thought the arson sections were fascinating, and Grann’s treatment of death row and the seriousness with which we should consider that penalty was honest and thoughtful.

“Which Way Did He Run?” is about a firefighter named Kevin Shea, the only man from his engine to survive the attacks on September 11. However, Shea doesn’t remember anything that happened that day, and is haunted by the question of how he survived — being courageous or being a coward? There aren’t any easy answers in the essay, but Grann artfully poses these questions and explores what the answers could mean. I’m always impacted by 9/11 stories, and this was no exception.

The final essay I want to explicitly mention is “The Chameleon,” a profile of a”serial French child impostor” named Frédéric Bourdin. As a child and teenager, Bourdin was well-known for his ability to imitate anyone. As he grew older, he used this ability to find safety in orphanages and other relatively harmless pursuits. But eventually he grows daring and desperate, and takes on the identity of a missing American boy. When the family comes to France, Bourdin keeps up the ruse and returns to America pretending to be their lost son. Despite his flaws, Bourdin is a sympathetic character that Grann uses to look at the fine line between harmless and monstrous.

There were many other essays in the collection that I enjoyed, and I think individually they all work well. Grann is gifted at taking a compelling main character or characters and using them to illustrate bigger questions about what it means to live ethically and to what lengths people will go for the things that are important to them. So a little thematically uneven, but a solid book and audio book for people who are a fan of long-form journalism.

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  • Miss Remmers January 14, 2011, 7:40 am

    I have a student who is loves Sherlock Holmes so I’m definitely going to give this book title to her! Thanks for the review!

    • Kim January 15, 2011, 11:20 am

      Miss Remmers: I’m not sure how old the student is, but the book might be a little bit dark — there’s a lot of stories about murder, and at least one about prison gangs. I’m sure students could handle it, just something to be aware of 🙂

  • Erin January 14, 2011, 9:04 am

    I didn’t realize this was by the same person who wrote The Lost City of Z! The earlier book sounds more my style, as I’m not usually a big fan of reading about murders. However, The Chameleon sounds absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing the link — I’m off to read it now.

    • Kim January 15, 2011, 11:23 am

      Erin: “The Chameleon” was really good — one of those sort of unbelievable stories that is fun to read. I think some of the themes between the two books are the same. but The Lost City of Z is more of an adventure story than these were.

  • Steph January 14, 2011, 9:41 am

    Sounds like a lot of (creepy) fun! I admit that when I read your first sentence I thought “seems like a pretty broad theme”, so I wasn’t surprised for you to say that you felt this collection lacked some focus, but it sounds like it would be a good read if one had a physical copy. I still have to read his first book, though!

    • Kim January 15, 2011, 11:25 am

      Steph: Yes, the theme is huge. He tries to organize the essays by topic, but the topics are so big it’s hard to do that. I didn’t necessarily mind the jumps around, just something I noticed. Pick up The Lost City of Z first, I liked that book a lot.

  • Jen - Devourer of Books January 14, 2011, 10:49 am

    I listened to this on audio too, although only the first two essays, because I really just wanted to hear the Sherlock Holmes piece for What’s Old is New. I agree that the narrator was great, but I think unless I had the whole audio broken up by story into podcast-like pieces I wouldn’t want to listen to it all.

    • Kim January 15, 2011, 11:26 am

      Jen: I liked the Holmes piece a lot — really interesting. One thing I did notice was that the breaks in the essays didn’t always coincide with CD breaks, which was weird. I wish that would have been the case.

  • Cass January 14, 2011, 12:10 pm

    I tried to read this book in print a while ago but it just didn’t hold my attention. I’m glad to hear you liked the audio book; I’ll have to give it another try in that medium.

    • Kim January 15, 2011, 11:27 am

      Cass: I really like Mark Deakins as a narrator, so I think that’s part of why it worked for me.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) January 14, 2011, 3:42 pm

    I have this in print and think I’ll take it along the next time I go on a trip. Sometimes essays are perfect when you travel.

    • Kim January 15, 2011, 11:28 am

      Kathy: Essays are great for traveling, it’s nice to get things you can dip in and out of if you’re distracted.

  • Jenny January 14, 2011, 8:25 pm

    Oh, The Chameleon sounds fascinating. It is like that boy in Little Lord Fauntleroy! But real. I love a good scam (as long as it’s not perpetrated on me), the more outrageous and undoable, the more fun when someone does it. :p

    • Kim January 15, 2011, 11:29 am

      Jenny: Yes, sort of! I do sort of love outrageous scams too, and this one is pretty over the top.

  • Trisha January 15, 2011, 12:41 pm

    I can definitely see how a collection of essays on audio has its own problems due to the skipping or skimming around option you have with print books.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:11 pm

      Trisha: I think it would have helped if each essay was it’s own CD, so you could skip a little better, but I imagine that would have been hard to do too. It’s funny the things you realize you miss from one format of book when you’re reading in another format.