A captivating tale of beautiful, rare, priceless, and stolen feathers.
Journalist Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind, 2013) was fly-fishing in a New Mexico stream when he first heard about the “feather thief” from his guide. The author became obsessed with the story of Edwin Rist, a young American flautist and expert tier of salmon flies, who, after performing at a June 2009 London concert, broke into the nearby British Natural History Museum at Tring to steal 299 rare bird skins, including 37 of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s “beloved” Birds of Paradise. Johnson dove headfirst into a five-year journey “deep into the feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, cokeheads and big game hunters, ex-detectives and shady dentists.” Everything the author touches in this thoroughly engaging true-crime tale turns to storytelling gold. These intriguing tales include that of Darwin rival Wallace’s extreme hardships trying to gather rare birds from around the world and losing many of them in a sinking ship; the incredibly wealthy Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild’s museum at Tring, which his father built for him when he was 29 to house his extensive collection of animals and birds, alive and dead; and the sad history of 19th-century women demanding the most exotic birds for their fashionable hats, which resulted in hundreds of millions of birds being killed. Throughout, Johnson’s flair for telling an engrossing story is, like the beautiful birds he describes, exquisite. Furthermore, like an accomplished crime reporter, the author recounts the story of how Rist was located and arrested by a local, female detective nearly 15 months after the break-in; the trial, which features an unexpected twist; and the fate of much of his booty.
A superb tale about obsession, nature, and man’s “unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost.”