The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
Journalist Kirk Wallace Johnson has written “one of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books you’re ever likely to read,” said Randy Dotinga in CSMonitor.com. In the opening scene, a promising 20-year-old American flutist studying in London disembarks from a train in nearby Tring, breaks into the town’s natural history museum, and makes off with 299 rare bird specimens. Why risk his future on such a caper? “Plumage, it turns out, is a plum business.” In 2009, those bird skins were worth $1 million in certain circles, and Johnson has now ventured into many of them. Fortunately for us, “he has a fine knack for uncovering details that reveal, captivate, and disturb.”
Colorful birds clearly attract a broad range of obsessives, said Tom Nolan in The Wall Street Journal. Edwin Rist’s stolen cache included many specimens gathered 150 years earlier by Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who’d spent years braving tropical heat and diseases to collect samples of the world’s most spectacular avian species. Back in the 19th century, Wallace’s efforts triggered a rage for feather-laden hats, and though that fad eventually faded, we live in a moment when hobbyists who tie fly-fishing lures are mad for exotic plumage—as Rist well knew. As Johnson introduces us to outraged biologists on one side and fly enthusiasts on the other who are indifferent to how their obsession is pushing rare species toward extinction, it’s clear we’ve stumbled upon “the continuation of a battle begun in Victorian times.”
Johnson clearly sympathizes with the conservationists, said Jessie Williamson in Outside. Rist, after getting off easy for his crime, admitted to the author that he doesn’t even understand why museums have so many specimens, but when I read about Rist’s bringing his haul to his apartment, removing the identifying tags, and cutting up the skins, “my stomach knotted in pain.” This is “nonfiction that reads like fiction,” and at the same time conveys the real gravity of the crimes that Rist and others are committing against natural history.