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.
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.
"[...] Though compelling, it is hard to read the book without a mounting sense of outrage, even of anger, at the fact that justice does not seem to have been done and that there are people out there who, as with egg collectors, feel it is their right to acquire, by whatever means, the objects of their desire irrespective of the effect of their actions. [...]"
– Richard Sale, Ibis 162(1), January 2020
"[...] In general, the writing was thought to be of a journalistic style with 'americanisms' which some found jarred a little, though others were quite happy with this and could overlook any shortcomings. Some found it a patchy read, and the word-craft and writing style didn’t really work for another. But, those small quibbles aside, we all found it most informative and enjoyable. The thorough research was definitely its main strength, with the copiously annotated text adding much to our knowledge. We would most definitely recommend that anyone without an inkling of these events and their background should read this and be likewise astounded!"
– BTO Book Group, BTO book reviews
"[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