Book Review: The Devil & Sherlock Holmes by David Grann

Hey!

It’s rare for me to find nonfiction as engaging as fiction. I live in a world of facts and figures and typically want to escape into fiction, usually fantasy or science fiction, when I have an opportunity to read. Yet somehow David Grann‘s journalistic style and storytelling ability managed to cut through that reluctance and capture my attention, just as he did with The Lost City of Z a year ago. However he’s gone about it in a slightly different way with The Devil & Sherlock Holmes.

Where The Lost City of Z was a longer narrative told across several chapters, The Devil & Sherlock Holmes takes a 60 Minutes approach. Diving deeper into several different stories, Gann focuses on “Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.” This book collects twelve articles from Gann’s work at The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, and The New Republic. The stories run the gamut from the mysterious death of an expert in all things Sherlock Holmes, to the search for a giant in the ocean deep, the possibly wrongful execution of a man accused of killing his family in a fire, and the bizarre criminal world of the Aryan Brotherhood.

My favorite of the articles focuses on the quest of New Zealand’s Steve O’Shea, marine biologist. Beyond the special effects of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Pirates of the Caribbean, I really didn’t know much about the mysteries of the giant squid, sometimes called the “kraken.” China Mieville‘s book Kraken recently took a Lovecraftian-influenced urban fantasy approach to the Architeuthis (scientific name for the giant squid), but beyond the fictional cult-like fascination for these secretive creatures I had no clue there was a real life counterpart.

Now I know bit more about the obsessive search by many people and groups around the globe all hoping to capture a live specimen for study. O’Shea is hardly alone as he and his assistant run out to sea in a little boat in the middle of the night seeking his elusive prey – minuscule baby squid that he takes back to a tank in his lab in the hopes that they will grow to giant size. Grann was a brave man to travel in the tiny boat off the coast of New Zealand as a storm blew in and they struggled to haul in hand-made traps to see what they’d caught. Like Captain Ahab searching for Moby Dick, O’Shea and his peers won’t be satisfied until they’ve found their prey…

Then I gained even more respect for Grann as he showed even more courage diving into the prison world of the Aryan Brotherhood. To not only enter some of the prisons with the most hardened criminals and worst reputations, but to speak in depth with several of them over many visits requires you to be dedicated, brave, and perhaps a little crazy. This is a totally different madness than seeking a giant squid in stormy seas riding in a dinghy. The criminals Grann spoke to are frightening people living in a frightening world and yet I read with rapt attention as I learned how the group began as white supremacists and spread into other criminal enterprises such as gambling and drug dealing bringing in millions of dollars a year within the prison system itself.

Whether you occasionally delve into nonfiction or read it regularly, David Grann puts a face and voice to some amazing stories sure to keep you engaged cover to cover. Be sure to check out The Devil & Sherlock Holmes at your favorite bookseller!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Hi all…

Though I had heard through the grapevine that The Lost City of Z was a great book, I find myself reading much more fiction than non-fiction and never managed to pick up a copy. When I finally had an opportunity to read it, I was drawn into the story from the opening pages and held until the very end. And when I put it down, I told my wife that I had read novels with less compelling plots than this true story about obsession and the lure of the unknown…

Percy Harrison Fawcett disappeared in 1925 into the dense, unforgiving jungles of the Amazon and never returned. At age 57, he had more experience exploring the then unmapped parts of the world than nearly anyone else alive. What was to stop David Grann, a writer for The New Yorker, from disappearing on the same quest a mere 81 years later?

Grann’s seamless prose manages to weave past and present in a coherent tapestry, intertwining Fawcett’s story with his own as he develops his own fascination with the legendary City of Z Fawcett and so many others lost their lives pursuing. Would I want to accompany either of these men through the jungles of South America in search of rumors, hearsay, and legend? Probably not. They each risked their lives and the lives of others in a part of the world where the flora and fauna make the lasting works of society such as roads, buildings, and monuments disappear seemingly overnight. Thankfully, Grann is able to share his experiences and his research with his readers.

On Fawcett’s last expedition, the fateful trip from which he never returned, he took his son Jack and his son’s best friend Raleigh along as young, strong, fearless adventurers dedicated to the quest. They sought traces of what may have been El Dorado, the City of Gold, when Europeans first entered the jungles. The stories of such riches and the knowledge that the Amazon hid such a wealth archaeological and anthropological knowledge from the world was enough to drive Fawcett to research all he could.

After a long series of successful quests to map the jungles, his last expedition had been a failure and he’d been forced to retreat. But he vowed to go back and he did. Unfortunately he and his young companions were never seen again.

Grann spoke to Fawcett’s remaining family, spoke with experts far and wide, and eventually kissed his wife and baby son goodbye to travel to South America himself. He was hot on Fawcett’s trail. And he eventually found the truth he sought…

For me, reading about these harrowing tales was enough to make me appreciate their heroism and steadfastness from afar. As a bestseller on the lists of the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Denver Post, and others, obviously I wasn’t the only one who found the story irresistable. This book is not for the squeamish in a few spots, where Grann goes into great detail about some of the diseases and critters who see see the human body as a host or a meal. However, I found it fascinating to learn about some of the more horrific things the Amazon has in store for visitors.

If you have not yet been bitten by the bug, be sure to check out The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which is now out in paperback. It’s part Indiana Jones, part Sherlock Holmes, and fascinating from cover to cover.

–Fitz

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