I’ve recommended David Grann to readers who are curious, eager for a good guide when discovering new things—those who still like a surprise when reading about what’s real. Like Malcolm Gladwell, Grann is a staff writer at The New Yorker and writes in its sure, clear house style. As with John McPhee, another polymath New Yorker, who makes everything from tennis to trucking a deeply informing cultural happening, Grann brings new insight to whatever story he turns to the light, and finds more “story” in non-fiction than most novelists whose only limit is their imagination.
Before his recent bestseller The Lost City of Z, well described by writer Rich Cohen as “stiff lipped and Victorian at the center, trippy at the edges,” Grann found his voice reporting for magazines; his past pieces are now packaged in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, and represent a great introduction to his writing and sensibility. Always determined to see the thing to the full, Grann consistently finds the remarkable in what others overlook.
Like Michael Ondaatje’s builders of the Bloor Street Viaduct in The Skin of a Lion, Grann recognises in the work of “sandhogs”, Manhattan’s hidden architecture. Grann sees in the men down deep who dig beneath cities, the engineering marvel of Manhattan’s water supply, the head and hands of the city of water below. He portrays the danger in what they do, how easily things can fall apart; he sees in the men their deep familial bonds, the pride in work passed from father to son.
In the piece “Trail by Fire,” Grann convincingly debunks bad fire science, exposes the arrogance of investigators who can enable a man’s execution for arson homicide without being curious about how fire moves, and makes painfully clear the legislative dead spots of death row final appeal, the unlikelihood of the Governor’s call or engagement. At the same time, he shows the passion of the father, as prisoner, his children taken by fire, convicted for their deaths, awaiting execution. In “The Brand,” the Aryan Brotherhood is less the goony racism portrayed in OZ—less shiv, more plan—more a select group, surprisingly highly organised, a seemingly unstoppable violence bent on prison control and crimeland empire. In “The Chameleon,” a French adult imposter pretends to be a lost American child, and unpredictably finds accomplices in the family whose son he claims to be.
And lastly, “Mysterious Circumstances”: Grann is our guide to the weird bookish world of Sherlock Holmes, and the Baker Street Irregulars. He delineates among the scholars, making clear the cloistered hierarchies, estate intrigues; he finds humour in the zealot’s belief that Holmes is real, and that poor author Arthur Conan Doyle is not creator, merely Watson’s “literary agent.” He portrays Doyle as a man finally so undone by the burden of his creation that he rids himself of Holmes by sending him over a literary cliff, only to bow to readers’ pressure to have him return unconvincingly, JR in the shower. Doyle is the consummate rationalist, but ends up with the fairies, seeking spirits in grainy photographs, tricked by young girls balancing sheets and sticks, exclaiming “boo”. Grann also investigates the death of Richard Lancelyn Green, the world’s greatest Holmesian; he finds the final staging of a puzzle—murder or suicide?
In each of these pieces, Grann makes the weird near and accessible, and sees in the common what’s too rarely thought of—that “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”
Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee
Levels of the Game, by John McPhee