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The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (Vintage) Paperback

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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (January 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307275906
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307275905
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #376,957 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with David Grann

We had the opportunity to chat with David Grann about his bestselling debut, The Lost City of Z, and his second book of nonfiction, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession. Read on to find out what David thinks about the "infinitely strange" business of writing nonfiction. Have you stayed in touch with any of the individuals you wrote about in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes?

David Grann: In the course of researching the book, I got to know an array of astonishing characters. They include a marine biologist named Steve O’Shea who was trying to be the first person to ever to capture a giant squid and grow it in captivity; sandhogs digging an intricate maze of tunnels hundreds of feet beneath the streets of New York City; a Polish detective investigating whether an author planted clues to an actual murder in his postmodern novel; a fireman who suffered amnesia on 9/11 and is trying to piece together what happened to him on that tragic day; a baseball icon; cold killers; an imposter; and a school teacher, Elizabeth Gilbert, who attempted to prove that a man about to be executed for a deadly fire was really innocent. One of the strange things about reporting is that you spend a lot of time with someone and then resume your separate lives. But I occasionally hear from several of the characters in the stories. Gilbert, who had been paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident, recently called to tell me that after more than five years of rehabilitation she had begun to take steps with the aid of a walker. "I made it eighty yards," she said. "Almost a football field." Given the opportunity, are there any stories you would like to revisit in the future?

David Grann: Most of the pieces hopefully capture the essence of a story and don’t need elaboration. But as I learned from the strange and unexpected twists in these true tales, there is always a possibility that something new and startling may occur that would draw me back in. As a journalist, how does the experience of writing essays differ from writing a longer work like The Lost City of Z?

David Grann: It’s very different. With a book, you can follow many different characters and paths. With essays, you have to keep the lens tightly focused. I really believe that some stories need to be told in longer narrative form, and others, like the dozen in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, work ideally as shorter pieces. Much of your writing revolves around individuals with unusually strong obsessions. The people you write about have focused their lives on everything from searching for giant squid to disbanding the most powerful gang in the U.S. prison system. Are there any characteristics that these individuals share?

David Grann: Yes, as you mention, many of the characters are compelled by an obsession, even if the object of their obsession is very different. The other thing that many of them share is a curiosity and a hunger to explain, like Sherlock Holmes, the world around them--whether it be the unexplored sea, an underground empire, a secret prison gang, or a mysterious murder. Many of these stories are rooted in ambiguous circumstances. Did your initial impressions change during the course of researching these people and events?

David Grann: Definitely. When I began investigating these stories, I knew almost nothing about them. Many originated from little more than a tantalizing hint: a tip from a friend, a reference buried in a news brief. And so I hope that I take the reader on the same kind of journey that I experienced--a journey that often leads to conclusions that I never imagined. Many of the stories in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes have a "stranger-than-fiction" quality to them. Have you ever considered trying your hand at fiction, or is the real world strange enough for you?

David Grann: When I first started out as a writer, I had aspirations of becoming a novelist, but I could never invent compelling enough characters or plots. What’s wonderful about nonfiction is I get to meet these incredible characters--stick up men, sandhogs, prison escape artists, imposters, squid hunters, mobsters, FBI agents--and they allow me to spend time with them and document their private thoughts. If these dozen stories in the collection taught me anything, it is that life, to borrow a phrase from Sherlock Holmes, "is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent."

(Photo © Matt Richman)
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The catchy title is misleading because this collection of 12 previously published articles by New Yorker staff writer Grann (who also wrote The Lost City of Z, 2009) has only one story that has anything to do with Holmes. Readers expecting true crime may also be disappointed because Grann’s work here ranges from several actual crime cases through articles that have only a nod toward mystery, as in “Life is Strange.” However, Grann’s in-depth reporting and vivid writing make this worthwhile reading for lovers of good journalism. The Holmes story, “Mysterious Circumstances,” traces the fate of a foremost Holmes scholar, about to bid on a lost archive of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, found garroted to death, surrounded by Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Another story, “The Chameleon,” examines a master imposter’s life. Perhaps the most gripping is “Which Way Did He Run?” in which the only firefighter of Engine Company 40 to survive the World Trade Center bombing, an amnesia victim, tries to piece together whether he acted as a hero or as a coward. --Connie Fletcher --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

DAVID GRANN is a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker. He has written about everything from New York City's antiquated water tunnels to the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, from the hunt for the giant squid to the mysterious death of the world's greatest Sherlock Holmes expert. His stories have appeared in several Best American writing anthologies, and he has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic. A collection of his stories, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, will be published in March 2010.
Photo credit copyright Matt Richman

Customer Reviews

I really recommend this book to anyone who is interested in non-fiction books, great read.
The varied interests of these stories are held together by their curious natures, as well as Grann's ability to develop the story naturally with suspense and clarity.
C Wahlman
Each story ranges from 15 to 40 pages or so, making it a great book to pick up and read one or even a couple stories, then put down and do something else again.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

79 of 82 people found the following review helpful By J. W. Kennedy VINE VOICE on February 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book is a collection of articles on various subjects (all true stories) focused around the basic theme of madness and obsession. The writing style is concise, straightforward, simple yet intelligent. I found it very easy to read and get completely absorbed in the stories. Here, briefly is what each article is about

- A scholarly expert on Sherlock Holmes and Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is found dead. It may or may not have been murder.
- A Texas man is convicted and executed for allegedly setting fire to his home and killing his children. Subsequent investigation indicates he may have been innocent.
- A French con-artist pretends to be a missing American teen, even fooling the boy's parents. Or is there more to this case than meets the eye?
- A decadent postmodern Polish novel may be the author's confession to a cold-case murder.
- A New York City fireman on the scene of 9/11 when the towers fell is the only one from his company to survive. He has no memory of the event, and is obsessed with finding out whether his behavior that day was heroic or cowardly.
- A marine biologist in New Zealand will never give up until he captures a live specimen of the elusive giant squid.
- New York City's water supply comes through two large aqueduct tunnels. Both tunnels are old and in disrepair. It's a race against time to finish City Tunnel #3 before the old system fails.
- Forrest Tucker, the last of the classic hold-up men, is arrested for bank robbery at the age of 79.
- Rickey Henderson, record holder for most bases stolen in Major League Baseball, refuses to retire. He keeps on playing for a podunk minor-league team, and nobody can figure out why.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Unity Dienes on February 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
By and large, these essays are completely gripping, in a thinker's sort of way. David Grann creates a narrative out of his search for meaning and closure in far-flung topics, and it's clear that he has done a lot of original research here. He has interviewed the people whose lives touch the topics of his essays, attempting to bring order to the chaos of unsolved investigations and answers to baffling human behavior. In a few cases, I found myself wanting to pursue the topic. Especially in the case of the man who was executed for arson in Texas, the conclusion that he may have been innocent is of more than academic interest.

I found myself bringing up the narratives in this book in conversation--can you believe this? did you know that? do you think this could be true? And I love that. When a book grabs me beyond the moment; gives me something to mull over and chew on; entices me back for another narrative--then I know I have found a treasure.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Gaby at Starting Fresh blog VINE VOICE on April 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession is an unusual and fascinating collection of true stories. Each story is carefully researched and rich with detail.

We learn about:

* Mysterious Circumstances: The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic Richard Lancelyn Green, the foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes, sought to find a missing collection Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's letters, diaries, and manuscripts. Before the papers are found, Green is found to have died in a mysterious fashion. Grann takes us to Green's life, his quest, his rivals, and the mystery of his death.
* Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man? Grann examines the case of Todd Willingham who was accused and convicted of having murdered his three daughters by arson. Decades after the fire, a scientific expert is able to determine what had caused the fire and to evaluate Willingham's guilt.
* The Chameleon: The Many Lives of Frederic Bourdin Frederic Bourdin successfully adopts a variety of ages, professions, and nationalities - American, French, Spanish...
* True Crime: A Post Modern Murder Mystery Described by the Polish press as "the perfect crime" the murder of a 35-year old businessman is linked to the graphic and shocking novel "Amok".
* The Squid Hunter: Chasing the Sea's Most Elusive Creature Grann recounts man's encounters with and search for the Giant Squid from ancient times to today. From descriptions in the Bible to Roman encyclopedias and Homer's Odyssey, descriptions of giant squid are plentiful and encompass different continents. Grann accompanies Steve O'Shea, a marine biologist from New Zealand in his quest to capture and raise giant squid.
* City of Water: Can an Antiquated Maze of Tunnels Continue to Sustain New York?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Beth & Jung Park on June 3, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I purchased this based on a recommendation in Slate, and I was not disappointed. My favorite essay in this collection was about the water in New York City. Who knew that without new tunnels to bring water into the city, New York's entire existence is at risk of a catastrophic failure? This is an essay that I discussed with others. I enjoyed the author's attention to detail and how all the facts were woven into a cohesive whole.

So why a 4? Some of the accounts were gristly and difficult to read. For example, the story of the Haitian death squad leader gave insight into what a politically messed up country Haiti is. This is the type of book that might benefit from being read in segments over a period of days to allow reflection. I did not pace myself, but rather read in a single shot. By the end, I felt bludgeoned and numb to the intensity of the later essays. Also, I wished that a further footnote was added to some of the stories to update on the current state or to recommend where to learn more.
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