David Grann compiles a decade of investigative profiles from The New Yorker and elsewhere in a compelling study of the dark side.
There comes a time in every New Yorker writer’s life when collected articles morph, as if predestined, into a book. For David Grann, whose full-length book The Lost City of Z exploded onto the literary scene last year, that time is now. Grann’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession is made up of twelve previously published articles (nine from The New Yorker), some having first appeared almost a decade ago.
Despite its widely varied subjects—ranging from a French man who roams Europe pretending to be a teenager to the prosecution of the Aryan Brotherhood—Grann’s book does indeed have a unifying theme, one which makes the volume more than the sum of its parts. Grann’s theme is the quest for darkness in its broadest form. Sometimes that quest is literal, as when he follows two men who spend their lives probing the ocean’s depths in search of giant squid. More often, the quest is metaphorical, as the writer introduces us to men and women—mostly men—who are obsessed with the dark side of life. A man who becomes obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, and may or may not have orchestrated his own suicide to mimic a Holmesian death. A man who allegedly murders his ex-wife’s lover, and then writes a novel detailing his crimes.
In “City of Water,” Grann enters the lives of “sandhogs,” those who dig the tunnels far below the streets of New York City, and struggles to understand why anyone would choose a profession that, aside from being fraught with danger, forces one to spend more time under the surface than above it. What’s impressive is that Grann never pushes his subjects too hard, nor stoops to easy conclusions. A reader leaves “City of Water” not really knowing why James Ryan, Grann’s subject, does what he does, beyond the simple reason that his father and grandfather were sandhogs before him. But we do come to understand Ryan in ways that are more meaningful and less condescending than mere explanation.
Grann is not afraid to tackle subjects, interview people, and go places many journalists would prefer to avoid. He admits to being terrified of entering a “mole”—a huge, powerful, potentially deadly machine burrowing hundreds of feet below the city. But he does it anyway. “Soon,” he writes, “I was standing in mud and water up to my knees, staring at the giant metal blades. I tried to step away, but my back hit something hard: the head of the tunnel.”
In the strongest and most poignant piece, “Giving ‘the Devil’ his Due,” Grann meets and follows a Haitian exile named Emmanuel “Toto” Constant. Constant, the alleged head of a paramilitary death squad in the post-Aristide era, somehow emigrated to Queens and, at the time of the article’s original publication, was living in the midst of the Haitian community in exile, many of whose families he had terrorized and murdered. “Unlike Cain, who was cast out of his community,” Grann writes,
Constant had become an exile in a community of exiles, banished among those whom he had banished. Though he had fled justice, he could not escape his past. He had to face it nearly every day—in a glance from a neighbor, or a poster on the street.
Grann allows Constant to speak for himself, telling his story over several months, often speaking “for hours on end.” Over the same period, Grann “interviewed his alleged victims, along with human-rights workers, United Nations observers, Haitian authorities, and former and current U.S. officials.” Though Constant is clearly villainous, Grann manages to tell his story dispassionately, in a style that is calm and objective without being cold. It is this absence of pathos or judgmentalism in telling the story of a cold-blooded killer that makes all the stories in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes so powerful, and so important.