Truth stranger than fiction

David Grann, if his last two volumes of nonfiction are any indication, doesn’t have what you might call an abiding interest in the lives of everyday people.

That might sound like a slight against the guy, especially in this age of Joe the Plumber and Blue Collar Comedy (“Get ’er done!”), but as the best-selling The Lost City of Z and the just-released The Devil and Sherlock Holmes make plain, it’s just that Grann’s M.O. is the inverse of your run-of-the-mill feature-writer’s.

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Rather than trawling for telling details in the circumstances of the average citizen, Grann’s method is to confront the reader with those on the outermost fringes of society — serial impersonators and members of the Aryan Brotherhood, death-row inmates and Arthur Conan Doyle obsessives — with the unlikely outcome that these tales, too, educe empathy and shed some light, however oblique, on that elusive thing known as the human condition.

That the examples I’ve cited in the previous sentence hail (with one exception) from Part One of Grann’s new book is no accident; like many a pop album, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is noticeably front-loaded, with the back end a loose assemblage of slightly less inspired toss-in essays. In any event, it’s in the first section that Grann hews more faithfully to the collection’s stated raison d’être — to “reveal the hidden narrative” underlying otherwise-forgotten news clippings and cases gone cold.

It’s also in this first segment that Grann gets to indulge his own inner Sherlock Holmes, picking up on curious clues from ostensibly open-and-shut cases and wondering whether, just maybe, something wasn’t rotten in Denmark all along.

To wit: the collection’s most powerful article, “Trial by Fire,” which appeared originally in The New Yorker, where Grann is a staff writer (he cut his teeth as a copy editor at The Hill way back in 1994). Here the author presents what appears, at first blush, a paint-by-numbers bit of true-crime reportage: the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of and eventually executed for setting fire to his own home in Texas in 1991, killing his three infant daughters.

Willingham, Grann informs us, essentially never stood a chance at avoiding the hangman’s noose. Virtually every bit of circumstantial evidence pointed to his having set the fire — he escaped from the house miraculously unscathed, having outrun the flames as they lashed down the one-story structure’s only hallway, and then there was the fact that the blaze met all the criteria for arson, which Grann lays out in painstaking (though eminently readable) scientific detail.

Thing is, no one had ever posited a clear motive for the crime, and Willingham himself had never stopped insisting on his innocence — not when his own lawyers didn’t believe him and advised him to cop a plea; not when his wife left him; not when a jailhouse informant testified that Willingham had admitted to starting the fire. Aside from his parents, about the only person who believed him was Elizabeth Gilbert, a prison pen pal, at first skeptical but increasingly convinced Willingham was not the culprit.

It was Gilbert who eventually sent a file containing all the evidence of arson to a renowned scientist and fire investigator, Dr. Gerald Hurst, and it’s here that Grann unveils his masterstroke. Having eased his readers into the jargon earlier in the piece — when outlining the V-shaped baseboard chars, “burn trailer,” “pour patterns,” “puddle configurations” and “crazed glass” thought to be the hallmarks of an accelerant-fueled arson fire — now Grann can really put on his scientist’s hat, drawing on Hurst’s empirical conclusions to knock down each criterion for arson that’d been used to prove Willingham’s guilt.

Of course, as indicated earlier, Willingham never did find his way off death row, and here again Grann bends his story in a new, unseen direction, righteously impugning the methods of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and questioning, more or less openly, whether Willingham’s case isn’t the first verifiable “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”

It’s these elegantly turned changes of pace — in the case of “Trial by Fire,” from a police blotter-like sketch to a scientific dissertation to a deeply felt, humanistic portrayal of a man’s final hours on earth — that keep Grann’s various narratives from running aground or, worse, taking on that “Holy cow, how deliciously odd!” air usually reserved for items in a Ripley’s Believe it or Not boardwalk museum. Neither does Grann’s clear, concise, swift-jab style hurt his cause; think of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes as The Master and Margarita as written by Hemingway.

After all, if you can make discussions of prevailing theories of fire behavior and rundowns of the routines of state review boards compelling — well, that’s a rather diabolical trick, my dear Watson.