NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Sherlock Holmes once said that life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. Writer David Grann knows that. He spent years traveling around the world to investigate stories of obsession, deception and just plain mystery, and he most definitely includes those who quote Sherlock Holmes as if he'd been a real person.
That's part of the title story in his new book, and while these tales range from the suspicious death of an Arthur Conan Doyle scholar to the vast network of tunnels beneath New York City, several open a window into the lengths some people go to to deceive others or themselves.
Let's face it, we've all been tempted to embellish the truth about ourselves at some point or another, in large ways or small. I'll confess that many years ago I claimed Conan Doyle as a distant relative. He's the only Conan I'd ever heard of.
When have you ever misrepresented yourself or maybe just let somebody believe something that wasn't quite the whole truth but made you look a little bit better? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, valor thieves. Those who pretend to be war heroes deserve condemnation, but Jonathan Turley argues they should not be held to criminal charges.
But first, David Grann joins us from our bureau in New York City. His new book is "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession." And welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. DAVID GRANN (Author, "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession"): Oh, thanks so much for having me again.
CONAN: And I wonder: Do you think that everybody, at least at some point in their lives, has made up something about themselves to make themselves look a little bit better?
Mr. GRANN: I think that is certainly true. We all mythologize to some degree ourselves and probably embellish. I think some of that is the desire to tell stories. Some of the characters in this book, though, go to much greater lengths than the ordinary person.
For example, there is a con man who was kind of one of the greatest con men. He was an imposter who always pretended to be a young person. Even when he was 33, he was doing this con to be taken in by orphanages and families.
Or there was a case of somebody who had these kind of mytho-creations, this Polish novelist, and he may have planted clues to a real murder in his novel, and you never knew - and one of the things he was always trying to test was what is true and what is fictional, and can you tell the difference?
CONAN: And what's a post-modernist and what's...
Mr. GRANN: What's a post-modernist and what's an empiricist, exactly.
CONAN: Well, let's get back to the character you call the Chameleon in your book, and this is man - you opened with a story of this 14-year-old waif found on the streets in a village in Paris. He says he's been terribly abused. The police have gotten a couple of calls. Come and rescue this young boy. He's troubled and he's wearing a cap because he said he's got terrible scars on his head. And of course they what a terrible story. They take him and take care of him.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, they take him in, they take care of him. He always does the same thing. At that point he was in his 30s. He was balding, so he wore a cap on his head and a bandana. He said he had been in a terrible car accident and had scars on his head, and that's why he wore this.
He was brought into the school. He went to school with 13 and 14-year-old kids. He quickly became one of the most popular kids in school. They all loved him. The teachers all took an interest in him, and it was only gradually, when somebody actually saw a show about this great European imposter and his picture appeared, one of the teachers said, oh my God, I think thats our student, and slowly they came, and when they arrested him, you know, they took his cap off, and his voice suddenly dropped to a baritone, and he said I want a lawyer, and they knew then that he really was the Chameleon.
CONAN: Yeah, busted. But the most amazing story about him is that he's in real trouble at one point, and so he invents a story that he finds a missing American kid who he vaguely resembled and claims to be this American kid who's been missing from his home in Texas for a couple of years.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, this is really what drew me to the story. It wasn't just that you had this eccentric imposter who did these kind of ruses all around Europe. But at a certain point he was in trouble in the law. He was in Spain. He was afraid he was going to be arrested.
He had always invented characters. He had never stolen them, but at that point he steals the identity of a missing American boy, a boy who went missing when he was 13 named Nicholas Barclay(ph) from a very small town in Texas, very poor family.
And the family comes, and they take him, and for five months he lives in Texas with the family at least saying and believing that he was their missing child, although the story then takes another twist.
CONAN: A bizarre twist. Some family members apparently did believe he was the missing kid, but the mother and one of his quote-unquote "brothers" - well, we're left with the strong impression that they knew he was not the missing boy because they may have killed the missing boy.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, there is a growing suspicion on the part of the imposter, who's named Frederic Bourdain, this man who had always conned people - he began to wonder if he was the one who was being conned. and did the stepbrother in particular know about what had really happened to Nicholas and in fact been implicated in his murder, and that he in a way was an excuse, almost a protection, to ensure that people thought the brother was still alive.
And when Frederic Bourdain, who was the imposter, was eventually arrested by the FBI, he tells them this story. Now, they of course cannot rely on anything he says.
CONAN: Of course not.
Mr. GRANN: This is a man who, by his very by his admission says my job is to manipulate, that is what I do. But they had their own suspicious about how could a family believe that this boy of a different color eyes who had only been missing for a few years, so...
CONAN: Had a French accent.
Mr. GRANN: Had a French accent - could be their missing son. And so they began to investigate it, and they developed very strong suspicions, they told me, the FBI agent told me and the prosecutor on the case strongly believed that the stepbrother either had knowledge or was involved in the disappearance of the boy, and the FBI agent alleged that the mother also, she thought, had some knowledge about what had happened to the boy.
CONAN: And who was conning who? They had to believe his story because if they said no, we know he's not the kid because we anyway, anyway. And the kicker is that he's now married and has a child and is in telephone sales, where he replies: I'm a natural.
Mr. GRANN: Yes, he's a very natural he's the best salesman. We wish we could all be such good salesmen as him. He says he's a natural, and he has when I wrote the story, he had one kid. He now has another kid, and when I asked him about this new role he had of he had always said when he did these cons, all he was looking for was love and a family. That was what he always said.
Now he's suddenly constructed this in his life, and I said, you know, you've become a new person, and he said, no, this is who I am.
CONAN: We're talking with David Grann about his book, "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes," and about the ability to deceive others and ourselves. What, well, fabrications have you ever made in your life story? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Ben's(ph) on the line calling from Hudson in Ohio.
BEN (Caller): Hi. Should I tell you my story?
CONAN: Go ahead.
BEN: Okay. I was about 25 years old at the time, and I (technical difficulties)...
CONAN: Oh, Ben, your phone is betraying you.
BEN: Here, let me get over here. Is this any better?
CONAN: Let's give it one more try.
BEN: Okay. So when I was 25 years old I'm 54 now I had met this girl, and I really wanted to strike up a relationship with her. So I had to make up what I did for a living.
Now, at the time I was in a management training program for a company in Florida and I was driving a cement truck, but I told her I was a lawyer.
CONAN: Lawyers seem more glamorous.
BEN: Well, and she fell for it, and during the weekend, of which I was home from Florida, back in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she invited me to this upscale party, which is fine. I went. But then it really got rough when I ran into some high school friends of mine who clearly knew I wasn't a lawyer.
BEN: So I managed for a little while, and the relationship lasted about a month and a half, and for a good month and a half I had a lot of good stories about law and where I went to school, until the relationship started getting serious, and then I had to...
CONAN: Fess up, yeah. And did it dissolve at that point?
BEN: We were talking every night for about two hours. After I told her truth, I don't think we talked for two minutes.
CONAN: Well, I'm sorry about that, Ben, but a cautionary tale perhaps.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Thank you very much. And have you ever told a whopper again?
BEN: No, never.
CONAN: Good, so you did learn a lesson. Thanks very much.
CONAN: David Grann, there are so many people in your book, they do take it to extremes. The Polish writer, this is a guy who writes a, well, sort of modern-day version of "Crime and Punishment," but apparently having had committed the crime in the first place.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, I mean this is a kind of extraordinary story and I think very much fits this theme of that quote you said at the very beginning of the program, that Sherlock Holmes said that life is infinitely stranger than anything man could invent, and this story certainly fits those parameters.
You had a Polish intellectual, a kind of highly regarded intellectual, who was a post-modernist, who wrote this very experimental novel, and at some point a detective is trying to solve a working class, very empirical, didn't really know what post-modernism was, he's trying to solve a cold case, and he gets a clue that points to the author, and he starts reading his novel.
And as he's reading the novel, he begins to find what he believes are clues to an actual to the actual murder.
CONAN: And he goes on and he finds actual physical evidence and eventually charges the author, who says wait a minute, I'm being put on trial for having written a book.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, I mean, the amazing thing, the funny - at least some of these stories have they can be very unsettling, sometimes disturbing, but they also have oddly comedic moments, and one of the most comedic moments is when this post-modern novelist is on trial and suddenly tries to claim that he is an empiricist and that others cannot interpret his novel. I know what the novel is.
CONAN: I wrote it.
Mr. GRANN: I wrote it, and he had always believed in this post-modern notion that the author is dead, and it's only interpretation that matters, and there is no truth. And suddenly, in the middle of his trial, he tries to proclaim that he is the author and he knows what he said.
CONAN: And, but the creepiest part is apparently he'd been working on a sequel.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, it was very unsettling, that when he was arrested, and when I went to actually go visit him in a Polish prison, he told me that he was working on a sequel, and I then later learned and he told me it would be even more shocking than the original one.
And then I found out that the police had gathered evidence from his computer where he was out gathering material about a new potential victim.
CONAN: That's just one of the stories that David Grann tells in "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession." He published many of them originally in The New Yorker magazine, but they've been updated and revised.
We're interested in stories of, well, your self-embellishment. Have you ever made yourself look a little bit better than perhaps reality would admit? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking about stories of deception in David Grann's new book, sure, but also closer to home. Who has not been tempted to embellish the truth about themselves at some point or another in large ways or small? When have you misrepresented yourself or maybe just let somebody believe something that wasn't quite the whole truth? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
David Grann's new book is titled "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession," and let's get Norman on the line, Norman calling from Portland, Oregon.
NORMAN (Caller): Yeah, hello, Neal?
CONAN: Hi, Norman, go ahead.
NORMAN: Yeah, nice talking to you. I was actually just about on my way out the door when I flipped on the radio and heard this conversation of Sherlock Holmes, the great detective novels, post-modern mendacity. I thought I'd take a shot to get through for the first time ever.
CONAN: Well, congratulations.
NORMAN: Thank you. If my voice sounds a little nervous, it's about -because I'm about to confess to something, and the short story is this. A few years ago, as an opera lover, I was in Rome, and I wanted well, I wasn't quite in Rome. I was on my way to Rome and I wanted to visit the three actual locations of the opera "Tosca."
Now, I knew seeing the church and the Castel Sant'Angelo from Acts I and III would be easy, but I learned that the Palazzo Farnese is actually the French today, the French embassy, and not easy to access.
So I wrote a letter to the French ambassador and told him I was a novelist researching an opera about "Tosca," and could I come and see the office and take some notes, under supervision of course. And to my surprise, they emailed me and told me yes, I could come, and I did, and in fact had a wonderful, private tour of the ambassador's private office.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORMAN: And I had to continue with the charade as I was in conversation. End of the story: when I left and came back to the States, I felt so guilty about the clear lie more than an embellishment, that I sat down and wrote that novel.
CONAN: You're kidding.
NORMAN: It's not published, but it is finished, and one day maybe it'll see the light of day. If not, at least I have assuaged my conscience.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GRANN: Well, that was a very productive deception.
CONAN: I was going to ask: What's the statute of limitations on invading the French embassy?
NORMAN: I'm not sure what that is, and that was of some concern to me before I made the phone call. One last little piece of the story, as the emails there was more than one went back and forth, and I specifically asked for access to Baron Scarpia's office, the villain in "Tosca," the ambassador's secretary wrote back to me and said, well, they were willing to consider the request, but who was Baron Scarpia, and where is his office?
So I, with my uncultured, American background, had to send off to them, with their pointy noses in the air, and explain to them who was Sardou and who was Puccini, and I kind of enjoyed having that opportunity to let the French know that just because I carry an American passport, I may know something.
CONAN: Well, Puccini of course was Italian. If he'd been French, they would have known it.
CONAN: If Puccini had been French, they would've known it.
NORMAN: Well, Sardou was French, the original one, and they didn't. So I felt justified in the little one-upmanship, so to speak. But the fact of the matter was it became a great memory, a funny story. I swear I probably haven't told it before this, and it did lead to the joy of writing this novel, such as it is.
CONAN: Well, thank you, Norman, very much.
NORMAN: Thank you, gentlemen, bye.
Mr. GRANN: And one of the things I was going to inject, one of the things in the book, in the case of the chameleon, is we often think that these cons are very or these deceptions, these mytho-creations, are very hard to pass off, to get people to believe.
But one of the things, especially in speaking to the chameleon, is you realize how easy these cons are. And often they seem extremely obvious in retrospect that we're actually quite vulnerable to this, and if people play on or pry on our certain vulnerabilities, we're easy to go along with them.
CONAN: Yeah, that you look back at the people would look back at the way this 33-year-old man had fooled them into believing he was a 14-year-old boy, and you know, it seems blindingly obvious in retrospect, but you know, it's really hard to pick out at the time.
Mr. GRANN: I worked with Stephen Glass at the New Republic years ago, who was this con man, pathological liar who made up all these fake stories. And you know, he would he conned me easily, and he kind of would play on my vulnerabilities, and then in retrospect I said: How could I not have known?
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Sonja(ph), Sonja with us from Tucson.
SONJA (Caller): Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
SONJA: Well, my story is for my 10-year high school reunion, a girlfriend of mine whom I hadn't seen for many years had actually arrived about a half hour, 40 minutes before I did, and in the time between her arrival and mine, she had proceeded to tell everybody that I was a film producer in Hollywood.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SONJA: And the truth was I was only an assistant to a film producer in Hollywood, but once I got there, it was like, wow, that's the coolest job ever. How did you do that. I didn't have the heart or the guts to tell them that was not the case.
CONAN: So your whole high school class thought you were working on "Titanic."
SONJA: Yeah, pretty much, yeah. But I mean, I guess fortunately or unfortunately, the producer didn't have huge hits, but it was enough that if you actually looked it up, you would see, you know, that I worked with him, and it was very easy kind of to let the story go, so...
CONAN: And an evening where you were the star graduate of your class.
SONJA: I had the coolest job. That's definitely the true.
CONAN: Well, that's probably worth a little a sleepless night or two.
SONJA: Yes, definitely.
CONAN: Sonja, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. It is a reminder I thought about that other story before, but I was the London bureau chief for National Public Radio, and we had some colleagues going on a visit to the Soviet Union; this is obviously back in the day. And I, of course, the only person I was the London bureau chief, but I was the only person in the bureau, and we used to send telexes to negotiate their facilities and all this sort of stuff, to Moscow. And I kept promoting myself. I was eventually I was vice president European affairs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: But this was just to get, you know, noticed by Soviet bureaucrats. It was not to get any benefit from it.
Mr. GRANN: One of the characters' striking stories, I thought, in the book is this character of Forrest Tucker, who was this bank robber...
CONAN: Not the actor, but...
Mr. GRANN: Not the actor. He was kind of the last legendary stick-up man. He kind of started this back in the '30s and '40s and continued up, all the way up until a few years ago. When he was 78, he robbed his last bank. He and he sped away in a getaway car and was chased by the police.
He was also the greatest prison escape artist of his generation, broke out of pretty much every prison, including San Quentin. He built a kayak and managed to flee. But the reason that made me think of him is that he would marry people and build a very normal family life, and the wife would believe that, you know, he was a musician.
He had this fake office he would go to every day, and they believed they kind of lived this normal, middle-class life, and years would go by, and then eventually the FBI or the police would knock on their door because he had been arrested for robbing a bank, and they would discover that he had maintained this deception for years.
CONAN: Even in the title story of your book, about the Sherlock Holmes expert who was murdered under suspicious circumstances, and you investigate the case, but even in that story there's a lot of double life going on here. It turns out there were things about him his family did not know in the end.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, and part of that story is really a meditation on biography and on sleuthing and can we ever know, fully know, another character. In this case the main character is trying to write a biography about Conan Doyle and learn everything he can...
CONAN: My relative, yeah.
Mr. GRANN: Yes, your relative, and write the definitive biography, and yet it's always elusive. He can never feel like he knows his character, uncover every secret. And similarly, in working this story, I found myself struggling to try to understand this Sherlock Holmes scholar who had perished and who he was and to kind of unravel and write his biography.
And one of the things I discovered in meeting with his family, that even they didn't know some of his secrets. For example, he had been gay, and his lover, or one of his old lovers, came to his funeral, and they only learned that then. And there were other things as well about him, just ordinary things, that he had tried to write a novel, just small details about his travels overseas, that they were only discovering after he perished.
CONAN: And one of the curiosities of that very curious story is that in fact if he'd been a little less obsessed and a little bit more patient, everything he ever wanted would've fallen into his hands.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, I mean, he had been striving to get this archive so he could write this biography, and he believed the archive had been stolen, and it turned out that it hadn't been, and many of these papers actually were made public, and he could've written this book had he just been more patient.
And the story really explores this line between rationality and kind of super-reason, this kind of Sherlockian reason, and then rationality and madness, something you see in some of Sherlock Holmes' stories as well, with Moriarty, his, you know, his great enemy, and in many ways Richard Lancelon Green's life echoed that.
CONAN: And indeed you see in the life of Conan Doyle too, who in his later years went, I think the official term is bonkers.
Mr. GRANN: Yes, he went a little batty. Conan Doyle himself, he had been this person who, again, created the greatest rationalist character, this paragon of reason, this superhero of science in Sherlock Holmes.
But by the end of his life, Conan Doyle, after World War I - and his son died in World War I - became obsessed with ghosts and sprites and believed he was visited by spirits and he said, I'm Sherlock Holmes. I've proven that this exists. And people essentially thought he had gone mad.
CONAN: Let's hear from Jake(ph), Jake calling us from Minnetonka.
JAKE (Caller): Hi. I wanted to say that I grew up in a home where my mother was a compulsive liar, so I learned very quickly that if you tell people things, they will believe you. They want to believe you. And using that - as a kid, I used that to my advantage. I was able to, you know, cheat, lie and steal and be able to look at everybody and say it wasn't me, I didn't do it.
And it wasn't until I became an adult where the guilt got so bad where I can hear the lies coming out of my mouth before I say them. And I've had to isolate myself to the point where I don't want to take advantage of people, so I stay out of situations where people have to get to know me because I will make something up every single time.
CONAN: Jake, have you talked to somebody about this? Did you get some help?
JAKE: Well, I have. I don't know if I want to change it though. I mean, that's the kind of thing. I work in sales right now, and in the company I'm at, I'm the top salesperson so I get the biggest commission checks. It's like I know what I am. I know what my mom is. And I'm comfortable with it. My mom, I don't think she realizes she even does it.
CONAN: Hmm. Jake, thank you very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
Again, getting back to the character, the chameleon. In the five months when he was pretending to be the American boy, stealing his identity, he goes crazy too.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, he does. I mean, he had always invented characters and kind of created them. He saw himself almost as an actor getting into a role, getting into a part. And suddenly, he was forced to play a real person. And there's one point where he starts going through the missing boy's items that had been given to him, his jacket and his letters. He's learning about the girlfriend that this missing boy had that he's supposed to be planning to be.
And he would look at the mirror at himself and really became conscious of his deceptions and really became haunted by them and slowly really begins to unravel during that five-month period.
CONAN: We're talking with David Grann about his new book, "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And there's one story I wanted to finish up by talking with you about, and that is trial by fire. This is a look into a case in Texas where a man was executed for - after he was convicted of arson, burned down his house with his children inside. And in the trial, it seemed like an absolute slam dunk but it raises real questions about whether there is now actual proof that we have executed an innocent man.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I learned in doing these stories is often we think we know the truth or the truth seems totally logical. But unlike Sherlock Holmes, we're very fallible. We're very mortal, and we can't always see the pieces. And this is the most tragic case of that.
A man named Cameron Todd Willingham woke up in his house, or said he woke up in a house that was on fire, and said he had run outside. His three daughters, they were very young - one years old and two - perished inside. He said he had fled outside and couldn't get to the children. And arson investigators came to the house and later found what they believe were clear signs and evidence of arson, including something they called crazed glass and low burning on the floor. And based largely on this evidence, he was convicted and he was ultimately executed in 2004.
CONAN: And what happened was that toward the end of his incarceration, eventually, there was one woman who started to - just as a project - to reach out to him and eventually came to believe his story and got this evidence to a, you know, top-notch arson investigator, somebody who knew everything about it. And it turned out there were basic flaws with this scientific evidence.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, more than basic flaws. They had found what they believed were 20 indicators of arson. And all the leading modern scientists, including the one who this woman had found, have concluded that these indicators were simply folklore. They weren't based on sound science.
For example, this crazed glass I described. Arson investigators once believed that was caused from intense heat from someone pouring a liquid accelerant on the fire. In fact, it has nothing to do with a liquid accelerant. It's actually caused from thermal shock. When glass is hot and you shoot a fire hose at the glass, the sudden cooling is what causes that cracking. And so all these indicators turned out to be bunk or based on junk science or wives' tales.
CONAN: I've watched "CSI." They've shown me the little V, the origin of the fire.
Mr. GRANN: Yes. I mean, one of the things that they found in the house was a V pattern and that was usually said to believe where a fire had originated. Now, if you just take a toaster in a room and light it and there's nothing else, it will create a V. And at the lowest point, you could tell that's where the fire originated.
But in a big fire, in a fire like at the Willingham house, which goes to something called flashover - I don't want to get too complicated, but essentially what it is is a room explodes with fire and even the floor ignites - you will get V patterns all over the place. And so this idea that because there were separate V patterns, there were different points of origin of the fire and, therefore, it had to been intentionally set, simply doesn't hold up under scientific scrutiny.
CONAN: And it raises, of course, all sorts of questions. About the death penalty, you quote Justice Antonin Scalia saying if there was a documented case of an innocent man who had been executed, we wouldn't have to look it up. The name would be shouted from the rooftops.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah. And I really do think this may become the first case where there is really overwhelming evidence that a factually innocent and a legally innocent person was executed. And if nothing else, it highlights great systemic failures in the judicial system that need to be corrected, especially when it comes to allowing in unreliable scientific testimony.
CONAN: David Grann, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. GRANN: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
CONAN: David Grann is the author most recently of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession. And he joined us today from our bureau in New York. We wanted to thank all the people who wrote in and called in to confess their exaggerations of their life story and the amplifications of their resume under various circumstances. We're sorry we couldn't get to all of them, but we do thank you for trying to join us on the program today.
Coming up, well, not unrelated story: Should it be a felony to pretend to be a war hero, to falsely claim a Medal of Honor or a Purple Heart? Jonathan Turley will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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