The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the CenturyThe Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
by Kirk W. Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2009, Edwin Rist, age 20, American student flautist at the Royal Academy of Music, broke into an outpost of the British Museum and stole hundreds of preserved birds. Among the haul were scientific samples gathered in the 1800s by Alfred Russel Wallace, painstakingly labeled with data about where and when they were obtained. Priceless to researchers, the birds – or, more precisely, their brightly-colored feathers – were worth thousands of dollars to a select group: Victorian salmon fly-tying enthusiasts. When Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about the heist two years later, during a difficult time in his own life, the case gave him something to focus his energy on. Why did Rist do it? What happened afterward? And where, exactly, were those hundreds of birds?

Johnson opens the book with Rist in the middle of the burglary, then jumps back to the history of the birds and their collector, Alfred Russel Wallace, the Tring Museum and its beginnings as the private collection of Walter Rothschild, and the nineteenth-century “Feather Fever” and birth of the hobby of tying salmon flies to exacting standards. He chronicles Rist’s life as the homeschooled tween learns about and becomes obsessed with fly-tying, becomes famous among his fellow hobbyists, and heads to London with his flute. He covers the official investigation as well as his own inquiries into what exactly happened and how. It reads like a novel, introducing characters and backstories while briskly developing the plot. End notes detail his sources, including official records and personal interviews with key figures.

This book sounded interesting from the first time I heard about it – a feather-stealing flautist? Victorian fly-tying masters buying and selling black-market bird parts? It did not disappoint. In my paperback ARC, the photo section was black-and-white and not great quality, so I was very happy to discover the photo gallery on Johnson’s site. This is definitely my kind of true crime book!

Source: ARC borrowed from a friend (thanks, CG!)

Reading Challenges: Counts for Read Harder 2018 (Task #2: A book of true crime)

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