Title: The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
Author: Kirk Wallace Johnson
Book Length (Audiobook): 8 hours 9 mins
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime, History, Science, Mystery
Read Start Date: April 10, 2019
Read Finish Date: April 11, 2019
Brief Summary of the Plot from Goodreads: On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin’s obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins–some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin’s, Alfred Russel Wallace, who’d risked everything to gather them–and escaped into the darkness.
Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist-high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man’s destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.
My Review: When I first starting reading this book, I had no idea that it was actually nonfiction, and based upon real events. I had never heard of using bird feathers for fishing lures, nor had I ever heard of a “fly tier” enthusiast stealing exotic bird feathers from a museum — in some cases, the very same birds collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, and other naturalists of the same era (around the time of Darwin’s expeditions).
The writing of Kirk Wallace Johnson was so good, that I was convinced for the first portion of the book that it was a fiction story. After I got into it a bit further, and looked the book up online, I realized that this story is actually true! It seems to be a little known fact, which makes for an awesome and refreshing novel. The story is very engaging, and even though it is nonfiction, there is the distinct smell of a fiction thriller — a daring heist of rare, expensive bird skins leads an amateur detective into the bowels of the fly tier underground, where the secretive fly tier community not only trades in black market and sometimes illegal feathers, but closes ranks when threatened.
Did Edwin Rist work alone, or was there perhaps more at play?
I love that this book unwittingly educated me, not only in the not so known world of fly tying, but also the feather trade in general.
The book alternates between telling the story of the feather heist, and telling the story of the author trying to track down the thief. The author also explains about the history of feathers and fashion, and how during the Victorian age several species were almost hunted into extinction all in the name of women’s vanity and social stature.
This book gets a rare 5 out of 5 stars from me. Everyone should read about this strange little piece of history. Even if you don’t generally like nonfiction books, this book will not disappoint.