Title: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession
Author: David Grann
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction/Essays/Audiobook
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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