The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (2010)
by David Grann
A collection of 12 magazine pieces by the author of The Lost City of Z. Some of them concern illegal behaviour, like prison gangs and organized crime, while others are just portraits of eccentric persons, like the giant squid hunter from New Zealand, or the sandhogs working beneath New York City.
It’s hard to pick a favourite story. A few of the more amazing ones, in terms of the story they tell, are “The Chameleon”, about a man who likes to impersonate being an abandoned teenager, “True Crime” about a possible murderer who has written his confession into a postmodern novel, and “The Squid Hunter” about the obsessive search for more knowledge about giant squid, and one particular eccentric scientist who isn’t as well funded as some of his colleagues. “Trial by Fire” is also a pretty important piece, detailing what looks like a definite case of the execution of an innocent man, or at least one that should definitely not have been found guilty.
These are ultimately magazine pieces, mostly from The New Yorker, so they have the strengths and the weaknesses you might expect. For the most part engaging and somewhat illuminating.
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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009)
by David Grann
Percy Fawcett was one of the most well-known and respected explorers of his generation when, in 1925, he headed a widely publicized expedition in the Amazon to find a rumoured city which some equated with El Dorado, accompanied by his son and his son’s best friend – and was never heard from again.
“Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have some streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men.” (pg.56)
This book tells of the life of Fawcett, of the expeditions he led where he displayed remarkable survival skills, and the way that the legend of a magnificent city in the Amazon grew in his mind as he suffered through constant financial problems and the horrors of the first World War. The book also paints a vivid picture of the world Fawcett lived in, and the history of exploration of the Amazon jungles. A portion of the book details the author’s own effort to get to the point near which Fawcett’s party disappeared for good – it’s much easier these days, with planes and aluminum boats and outboard motors and satellite phones. It’s estimated that over the years at least a hundred people have died trying to find out what happened to Fawcett’s party of three.
The whole thing has the atmosphere of a Werner Herzog movie, whether it be the conquistadors of Aguirre, The Wrath of God or the 19th century industrialists of Fitzcarraldo – since I quite enjoyed those, I enjoyed this book too. The author is a magazine writer, and I think one of the things that keeps the book from being great is that it relies a bit too much on cliffhangers and crucial information obviously being held back until a later point in the book – it goes past the point of engagement to making the reader feel somewhat manipulated.
One of the most interesting points made in the book is that, following the initial gold-fever of European explorers which ended in disappointment, many scholars dismissed the Amazon as a place which was too poor in resources to support an advanced civilization. However, this was mostly based on scholars observing the remains of native tribes several hundred years after contact with the first Europeans – long after diseases new to the Americas had taken their toll. I don’t think I”m giving too much of the ending away to say that explorers have indeed discovered traces of large cities and broad highways through the jungle that matched up with the stories of a rich and advanced civilization, and the reports of early European explorers of vast populations, and these cities likely existed up until the point when they were decimated by newly arrived disease.
Additionally, this is the first book I read borrowed as an electronic book from the library. It was a pretty good experience, and I wouldn’t mind reading something this way again.
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