There is a good reason tales of true crime make for great magazine writing. Or good procedural TV shows and movies. It’s because the best stories of unsolved murders, missing persons, or outrageous heists have the ring of fiction. They almost have to in order to succeed. We’ve all seen (or, let’s face it, written) enough cops blotter items to know that crime isn’t always sexy: “Police arrest suspect in armed robbery.”
In 2004, David Grann wrote about an unsolved crime that hit all the salacious notes: A victim killed by garroting, a misplaced inheritance, and British people. And in the most perfect twist, the case all centered around Sherlock Holmes.
Grann’s piece, “Mysterious Circumstances,” for The New Yorker, is an enthralling investigation into the, well, mysterious circumstances that lead to the death of the world’s foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes, Richard Lancelyn Green. In writing about Green’s death, Grann found a story befitting the full narrative treatment, not simply because it involved the world’s greatest fictional detective (sorry, Batman), but because the case – and it is that – is rich with characters, high stakes, and gobs of British intrigue. In Grann’s hands, the story unfolds in ways similar to the formula that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famous: An inexplicable crime takes place, Scotland Yard is befuddled, and a series of suspects awaits questioning.
But this being a magazine article and not pulp, Grann can’t just dive into the action. We’re first introduced to Green and his work, most importantly to the fact that the late scholar believed he was on the verge of securing a long-lost collection of personal writing from Conan Doyle himself. There is, of course, the small matter of Conan Doyle’s heirs. And so Grann begins unfolding the scenery and players:
Green then learned that Adrian had spirited some of the papers out of the chateau without his siblings’ knowledge, hoping to sell them to collectors. In the midst of this scheme, he died of a heart attack—giving rise to the legend of the curse. After Adrian’s death, the papers apparently vanished. And whenever Green tried to probe further he found himself caught in an impenetrable web of heirs—including a self-styled Russian princess—who seemed to have deceived and double-crossed each other in their efforts to control the archive.
A chateau! A curse! Deception and a Russian princess! And Grann’s just getting started. He’s clearly in the process of spooling up the thread to lay out the stakes of the story. Once the prized documents take a turn for Christie’s auction house the Sherlockian scholar grows more desperate and paranoid. The paragraphs race forward, the pace quickens, each sentence becomes so compressed and descriptive you feel like you can’t breathe. (In a good way, of course.) You’re worried about Green and what will happen to Conan Doyle’s archive. And then, just after you’ve gotten 1,000 words deep into the mystery, the body shows up. Boom. Crime scene:
The same evening, Priscilla West phoned her brother, and got his answering machine. She called repeatedly the next morning, but he still didn’t pick up. Alarmed, she went to his house and knocked on the door; there was no response. After several more attempts, she called the police, who came and broke open the entrance. Downstairs, the police found the body of Green lying on his bed, surrounded by Sherlock Holmes books and posters, with a cord wrapped around his neck. He had been garroted.
And with that – who gets garroted anymore? – the story begins. Or, to quote the detective, “the game is afoot,” and Grann shifts gears, inserting himself into what had previously been a strict third-person voice. He drops himself onto the stage the next paragraph, beginning with a phone conversation with one of Green’s close friends. Before you know it, he’s off into the rolling British countryside for interviews. With the narrative shift comes even more scene-setting, something that feels like the establishing shots you’d see in a movie. Grann is the inspector, and you his faithful sidekick. He’s deliberate as he walks us up to each new location and new character:
Not long after, I travelled to Great Bookham, a village thirty miles south of London, where Gibson lives. He was waiting for me when I stepped off the train. He was tall and rail-thin, and everything about him—narrow shoulders, long face, unruly gray hair—seemed to slouch forward, as if he were supported by an invisible cane. “I have a file for you,” he said, as we drove off in his car. “As you’ll see, there are plenty of clues and not a lot of answers.”
Everything up to this point feels like a glorious, and elaborate, setup. As Grann begins his inquiry we’re introduced to a cast of family, friends, and spurned colleagues. Each has their own theories and supporting evidence. And you begin to see why Grann got behind the wheel, and why describing these people and places is so important. By sitting them down in their own voice and space, they gain a little more gravity, or at least legitimacy, for us as the reader. It’s also the way Grann can employ another literary trick, where each character provides a new clue to advance the story:
Gibson glanced at his notes. There was something else, he said, something critical. On the eve of his death, he reminded me, Green had spoken to his friend Keen about an “American” who was trying to ruin him.
Like any good mystery, things seem to become clearer, and yet murkier at the same time. We think we’re on track to finding Green’s true killer and saving Conan Doyle’s archives. But that’s not exactly the case. Just like in any detective story, or any episode of Law & Order, in the second act the hero has to re-examine the facts of the case. And when Green does, we begin to see that this is a study in obsession, not just an unsolved murder.
It’s a story about men chasing men. Grann purses Green. Green was on the hunt for Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was chasing Sherlock. The investigation, as it were, begins to give the reader two histories that feel parallel, Green and Conan Doyle, both devoured by their task, often foiled by the cold, logical nature of their subject. And staring at this reality, not to mention the alternating theories around him, Grann pauses at a point in the final act to try to make sense of things. He’s asking for himself, but also the reader, does any of this make sense?
I wondered if he could have tried, in one last desperate attempt, to create order out of the chaos around him. I wondered if this theory, however improbable, was in fact the least “impossible.”
A nod to one of Sherlock Holmes’ more famous quotes, at the precise moment where Grann wants us to think more broadly about what he’s assembled in front of us. Like Holmes chiding Watson, he’s trying to tell us something without explicitly explaining it.
Literary mysteries and their nonfiction counterparts may have a lot in common, but we know in the real world sometimes you don’t get all the answers by Page 100. And this is what Grann wants you to know. The great game, the chase, can sometimes be an elaborate invention that captivates or consumes us.
If you remove everything else from a story, however improbable, what do you have? What if a dead guy in his bedroom with a rope around his neck is just a dead guy in his bedroom with a rope around his neck?
For more “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each Tuesday for a new shot of inspiration and insight.