Who is Edwin Rist? Genius? Narcissist? Felon? Mastermind? Pawn? Liar? One summer evening in 2009, twenty-year-old musical prodigy Edwin Rist broke into the British Museum of Natural History. Hours later, he slipped away with a suitcase full of rare bird specimens collected over the centuries from across the world, all featuring a dazzling array of priceless feathers.
Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist-deep in a river in New Mexico when he first heard about the heist, from his fly-fishing guide. When he discovered that the thief evaded prison, and that half the birds were never recovered, Johnson embarked upon a years-long worldwide investigation which led him deep into the fiercely secretive underground community obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.
A page-turning story of a bizarre and shocking crime, The Feather Thief shines a light on our fraught relationship with the natural world's most beautiful and valuable wonders, and one man's relentless quest for justice.
"[A]bsorbing [...] though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller."
– NPR's Fresh Air
"[O]ne of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever."
– Christian Science Monitor
"Johnson has written a fascinating book – the kind of intelligent reported account that alerts us to a threat and that, one hopes, will never itself be endangered."
– Wall Street Journal
"It is all a bit mad. Johnson, a wonderfully assured writer, takes us on a curious journey into the past [...] The Feather Thief proves that the most obscure, "candy-ass" activities can be made interesting for the general reader. Johnson makes his tale as vivid and arresting as a quetzal's tail."
– The Times of London
"Within pages I was hooked. This is a weird and wonderful book [...] Johnson is a master of pacing and suspense. [I]t's a tribute to Johnson's storytelling gifts that when I turned the last page I felt bereft."
– The Spectator
"Charming [...] There's a lot to Johnson's book, and he ties it together well, reeling you into disparate historical subjects in a thrilling catch-and-release style. [W]orth its weight in exotic bird feathers, which you'll learn are very expensive."
– The Paris Review (Staff Pick)
"[A] riveting read. It also stands [...] as a reminder of how an obsession with the ornaments of nature – be they feathers, bird eggs or ivory – can wreak havoc on our scientific heritage."
"Everything the author touches in this thoroughly engaging true-crime tale turns to storytelling gold [...] Johnson's flair for telling an engrossing story is, like the beautiful birds he describes, exquisite. A superb tale about obsession, nature, and man's 'unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost.'"
– Kirkus (Starred Review)
"[An] enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime [...] a page-turner."
– Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Way more interesting than you'd think a book about a guy who stole some dead birds could possibly be, this is a remarkably compelling story of obsession and history and a man who so loved his art that he would break the law for it."
– Booklist (Starred Review)
"[F]ascinating [...] a book about obsession, from the fly-tying community's hunt for specific bird species to Johnson's own need for justice and closure after the case is resolved. This is a gripping, multifaceted book about our need to possess beauty in the name of historical authenticity."
– Indie Next Pick: May
"a wide-ranging, captivating work [...] just like a master fly-tier, Johnson skillfully weaves these disparate strands into a scintillating whole. I was more than happy to bite and be reeled in."
– Literary Review
"A riveting story about mankind's undeniable desire to own nature's beauty and a spellbinding examination of obsession, greed, and justice, The Feather Thief proves not all thrilling true crime has to involve murder, rape, or the exploitation of victimhood."
"[a] rollicking true-crime adventure about obsession and the siren call of the wild"
– Goodreads ("23 Big Books of Spring")
"[A] thrilling read."
– Bustle ("The 9 Most Anticipated True Crime Books of 2018")
"[A] true crime caper recounted with relish."
– O, The Oprah Magazine (May 2018 Issue)
"A captivating tale [...] "
– Kirkus ("9 Book Club Picks for April")
"a fascinating narrative that expertly blends obscure history and captivating true crime."
– Oxygen ("5 True Crime Books We Can't Wait to Read this Spring")
"You'll never look at a feather in the same way again after reading this riveting detective story [...] [a] fantastical narrative which brilliantly weaves together Alfred Russel Wallace, the surprisingly shadowy history of fly fishing, conservation and the plumage of the most beautiful birds on Earth."
– Bookseller ("Editor's Choice – April 2018")
"Richly informative [...] endlessly fascinating and crackingly entertaining, The Feather Thief is the kind of true-crime narrative that gives Erik Larson's much-lauded The Devil in the White City a run for the money."
– Shelf Awareness
"An adventure caper, a dose of true crime, and an obsession with the natural world fill this exciting spring release [...] fascinating from the first page to the last – you won't be able to put it down."
– Southern Living ("Our Bookshelves Can't Wait for these 2018 Spring Releases")
"[A] batshit insane story."
– Chicago Reader ("Books We Can't Wait to Read in 2018")
"A true-crime tale that weaves seemingly unrelated threads – a museum break-in; the development of evolutionary theory; a case of post-Iraq PTSD; endangered birds; and (above all) the murky underworld of fly-tying obsessives – into a spellbinding narrative tapestry."
– Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu
"The Feather Thief is a captivating tale of an unlikely thief and his even more unlikely crime, and a meditation on obsession, greed, and the sheer fascination in something as seemingly simple as a feather."
– Paul Collins, author of The Murder of the Century
"This extraordinary book exposes an international underground that traffics in rare and precious natural resources, yet was previously unknown to all but a few. A page-turning read you won't soon forget, The Feather Thief tells us as much about our cultural priorities as it does about the crimes themselves. There's never been anything like it."
– Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs
The tropical birds-of-Paradise have fascinated generations of naturalists, from Darwin and Wallace (who risked life and limb to collect many specimens for museum holdings) to David Attenborough (see his book Drawn From Paradise). They were at the centre of a Victorian fashion craze for bird feathers, which decimated many colourful bird families, but they were also at the heart of a far more obscure Victorian pastime: salmon fly-tying. A resurgence in interest led young man to break into the ornithology collection of the Natural History Museum at Tring, stuff a suitcase with 299 specimens of various rare colourful bird species, and walk out again to sell their feathers
Welcome to the story of the natural history heist of the century.
Fly-tying is a traditional craft of making fish lures that resemble insects by tying various materials to a fish hook with thread. Anglers use these to catch fish. At least, this is true of those used to catch trout. Salmon are far less discerning when it comes to what's on the lure, as long as it is something that doesn't look natural. In the wake of above-mentioned feather craze, there was wide availability of exotic feathers, and aristocrats rapidly developed an unusual tradition for ever more outlandishly decorated fish lures calling for the use of feathers from various rare bird species. Specialist manuals were written that preached a pseudoscience to justify the use of these exotic and expensive materials. The worst part? These flies aren't even used for fishing anymore, and most salmon fly-tiers today are not anglers.
This is the backdrop that Kirk Wallace Johnson paints for the reader in the first part of The Feather Thief. This hobby saw a resurgence in the nineties and with the rise of the internet, hobbyists the world round connected to exchange tips and materials. Here, the protagonist of the story, Edward Rist, a young and talented American flute player, enters the story. Together with his brother he became entranced with the art of salmon fly-tying at a young age and quickly rose to prominence in these circles for the exquisite works he produced (to me these things all look very similar, but connaisseurs will disagree). It also drove him to visit the Tring branch of the London Natural History Museum, which has one of the world's largest ornithological collections, built up over the course of centuries by early naturalists in an era when species conservation and extinction wasn't much of a concern yet.
Slight digression here. Yes, natural history museums, like most history museums, have a troubled legacy of collections that have been partially built on plunder, colonialism, and, for the former, the hunting and killing of animals large and small. I don't expect my opinion on this to be popular, but what is done is done. We cannot go back and undo this. For all their troubled history, these specimens in museum collections around the world have immense scientific value, being time capsules that allow us to answer questions that the original collectors could never have envisioned. My recent review of The Lost Species highlighted their value, but Johnson mentions two more specifically pertaining to bird specimens. Egg collections were vital in showing the harmful effects of the pesticide DDT, leading to its eventual ban, and feathers from 150-year old seabird specimens irrefutably showed rising mercury levels in the oceans, flagging up health concerns. However, this value was lost on Rist, and as shown throughout the book, on most salmon fly-tiers. They see museums as useless relics sitting on valuable collections, keeping them locked away for no good reason really.
Based on court proceedings, (often now deleted) internet pages, and interviews with Rist, fly-tiers close to him, the museum curators at Tring, and police staff, Johnson meticulously reconstructs Rist's subsequent burglary and theft, the delay until the crime was discovered by the museum, the subsequent investigation that initially went nowhere, the events that led to Rist's arrest, and the subsequent court proceedings. Even though part of the specimens was returned to Tring, tragically, Rist had removed the labels from many other specimens. These provide vital details on the locality and date of collection. Removing this information makes the specimens useless for further scientific inquiry and irreversibly destroys a piece of history. Frustratingly, Rist walked away with a suspended sentence and never served time behind the bars, although he was given a hefty fine.
If you think this is the end of the story, this is where the book takes an unexpected turn, as part three describes how Johnson became interested – and then obsessed – with this case, months after Rist had been sentenced. He effectively went on a private investigation that the police forces in Tring did not have the manpower for, to try and find out what happened to a large part of the bird specimens that were still at large. Was there still a large stash out there, labels and all? Had someone else been involved, even though Rist had always maintained he acted alone? Rist's heist has been covered by media outlets, but I shall not give away how Johnson's story ends.
The Feather Thief reads like a good thriller and is a proper page-turner. You have to remind yourself that this is a true story. And a tragic and troubling one at that. Though Johnson refrains from casting a judgement on the fly-tying community, they don't come out of this story as a respectable bunch. They may have publicly condemned Rist for his actions, but Johnson's subsequent investigations reveal that many on the inside were only all too happy to turn a blind eye to the provenance of feathers once he started selling his haul. And the fact remains that their arcane "hobby" fuels an often illegal trade in protected species. Even though common feathers, dyes, and substitutes can be used to create fly-ties that are indistinguishable from traditionally crafted ones, these men (for it seems to be a scene populated almost exclusively by men) have developed an obscene fixation for the authentic. It is easy to agree with ornithologist Richard O. Prum's desire to see this pastime "stigmatized into oblivion". Worryingly, natural history collections the world over regularly experience these kinds of thefts, as various groups obsess over certain animal body parts and wild populations can't meet demand.
Would I recommend you read The Feather Thief? Yes, the book is very well written and I was glued to the book to the last page, reading it in a single sitting. Just be forewarned it is also a depressing and troubling story that will likely not make you feel good about how we relate to some of the beautiful animals and plants that surround us.
Kirk W. Johnson is an American author and founder of The List Project, a not-for-profit foundation that helps Iraqi refugees who previously worked for the U.S. government during the Iraq War. He lives in LA.