Friday, June 11, 2010

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession by David Grann

Sherlock Holmes is the image of the perfect detective- all that is important to him is solving mysteries, and when he doesn't have a sufficiently interesting one before him, he turns to other things to get the mental stimulation he needs. In his case, it is drugs. But people soon became obsessed with the very idea of Sherlock Holmes, much to the annoyance of his Creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

He took on such a life that people began to think he *was* real, and send him real cases, begging him to solve them. For that reason, Conan Doyle soon saw writing his stories as a chore, and eventually killed Sherlock Holmes off- only to have the public demand he bring Holmes back. Conan Doyle tried writing other works, but none ever sold as well as Holmes, so he was forced to bring Holmes back.

But if Holmes was obsessed, and the public was obsessed with the character, there are others who are still obsessed with Holmes today. Called the Sherlockians, they treat Holmes as if he is more than just a character, but as if he was a real, actual person who existed and lived.

The Holy Grail of Papers for the Sherlockians is a lost trove of papers held by Arthur Conan Doyle until his death. Thought missing, one Holmsian, Richard Lancelyn Green, tracked them down to one of Doyle's children, his daughter, Jane. Jane didn't want to let him read them, but promised him that when she died, she would give her father's papers to the British Museum, where they would be open to all.

When she did die, there were no papers given to the British Museum, and Richard despaired- especially when he found the papers up for sale at Sotheby's, a noted auction house. He desperately tried to stop the sale, and all too soon was found dead in his home, garrotted to death. But who killed him? Was it someone behind the sale of the papers? or was there a deeper, darker mystery at play?

Just as Richard L. Green was obsessed with Sherlockiana, many people are obsessed with other things, and this book charts the course of many obsessions and the cost they wreaked on the people who sought them beyond all sense- everything from money to power, and even a man who sought the love of a family- and who eventually got his wish.

There are also tales of the execution of an innocent man in Texas, a murderous gang behind bars known as "The Brand" who started out as skinheads but who craved sheer power more than anything else, and a man who started a bloody revolution in Haiti, who somehow wound up back in America amongst relatives of his victims.

I found this a fascinating book, about people's obsessions. Obsession can make people do strange things, and lead to strange and often bad ends. Each story in this book is something witnesses personally by Author David Grann, and he tries his best to be objective, even when interviewing a 78 year old man imprisoned for armed robbery- a longtime crook and escape artist.

You would expect a book of this sort to come to some sort of conclusion about obsession, good, bad or indifferent, but here, each story provides its own coda, and readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the nature of obsession and its costs.

The book is fascinating, but too many of the stories almost seem to have no ending. The best and most definitive one is the first, about the Sherlockian Richard Lancelyn Green, and the others seemed to pale in significance to that one. Recommended, but it does seem to go on a little bit too long.

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