Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
by David Grann (Doubleday, $29)
David Grann’s new book has the bones of an entertaining nonfiction whodunit, said Laurie Hertzel in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But don’t expect the reading to be fun. For though Grann’s take on the 1920s murders that beset an Oklahoma-based tribe begins as a Devil in the White City– style yarn, the story “quickly grows darker, and then darker still.” The Osage, by luck, had struck it rich in the early 20th century when oil was discovered under the barren land they had been pushed onto after the Civil War. But beginning in 1921, dozens of Osage were shot, poisoned, dynamited, or run over in a five-year period, and investigations by local authorities went nowhere—often intentionally. Grann, a New Yorker writer, spent years poring over court testimony, letters, and FBI files, uncovering a bigger conspiracy than the FBI ever detailed.
Grann’s previous book, The Lost City of Z, had more soul, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Still, the crime story he tells here is appalling, and “stocked with authentic heroes and villains.” First, newspaper and magazine writers and editors ignited a moral panic by spreading tall tales about the profligacy of the Osage, who had overnight become among the richest people in the world. The U.S. government soon appointed white guardians to control the personal funds of every tribe member, and then the murder spree began. By 1923, at least 24 Osage were dead, and in each case a guardian inherited the victim’s oil rights. The tribe, confronting apathy among local authorities, reached out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its new director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover assigned the case to Tom White, a former Texas Ranger with steely nerves and “the upright aplomb of Henry Fonda.” His investigation led to the conviction of a powerful local rancher. “But it is among Grann’s larger points that these murders were hardly the work of one human. It took a village.”
Grann’s account, unfortunately, “isn’t dramatic at all,” said Greg Curtis in The Wall Street Journal. Too many characters crowd its pages, and Grann neglects to build the battle between White and the plot’s evil mastermind into a pitched showdown. Still, Killers of the Flower Moon “is not easily forgotten,” especially its final pages, in which Grann reveals evidence that the death toll among the Osage actually may have been in the hundreds. In the end, his dogged reporting “reveals a society in which not just a few but most everyone was corrupt and villainous beyond imagining.”