Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

“Beauty, obsession and the natural history heist of the century”

Genre: Non-fiction (Adult), True Crime

Similar to: Fly Fishing by J.R.Hartley

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of books featured on BT adverts

Publication date: 26th April 2018

I’ll be honest – If it wasn’t for the #Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot I would never ever have picked this book up. It’s such a weird topic to write about, a completely bizzare story and features lots of different topics, none of which I’m particularly interested in.

You see, The Feather Thief is the true life story of Edwin Rist, a salmon fly tier who becomes so obsessed with the hobby that he ends up stealing a huge number of rare bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History in Tring in order to use their feathers to make salmon flies (and also makes pretty hefty profit selling the feathers on to other salmon fly tiers – Edwin is also a prodigal flautist and wants a new professional grade flute). 

Sorry, did I lose you there for a second? You don’t know what a salmon fly is? Or how it relates to dead museum birds? Or what this book is even about?

Yeah, that was pretty much my response when I read the blurb but I needed to read a book of true crime, sooooooo….yeah. I chose to read it.

And guess what?

It was INCREDIBLE!

I genuinely can’t believe how interesting this book was – especially for someone like me who knew literally nothing about salmon fishing, Victorian bird hunting or the esoteric (good word) world of modern day salmon fly tying. And now – now I know LOADS about all of these things and they are FASCINATING.

Let me explain…

The Feather Thief begins with an introduction into the world of the fishing fly. These are the things that you attach to your fishing hook (like a lure) to make the fish think that your hook is food or something to be attacked. Either way, the fish ends up with the hook in it’s mouth and you end up with a charming photo of you holding it by the tail before hopefully putting it back in the river. So, fishing flies are generally functional objects that help you to catch fish. People either buy them or make them using bits of feathers, tinsel, coloured plastic etc. – anything to grab the fish’s attention.

Except…

Except there is a bizzare, kinda underground world of people who create massively intricate, hugely expensive salmon fishing flies purely for fun – not fishing. They often follow Victorian instructions for such creations and as such need to get hold of the kinds of materials that would have been used at the time. This is where it gets interesting. You see, the Victorians loved feathers – especially from rare and/or exotic birds. Also, they didn’t give a tuppeny fig about ideals such as animal welfare, conservation or protecting vulnerable species – to be fair, none of these things had been invented yet. To the Victorians, if it moved then you should shoot it then either eat it, stuff it, preserve it or wear it. And if it came from a far flung country and looked fabulously exotic, so much the better for showing off your wealth and excellent taste. 

A huge market arose for the importation of feathers from the tropics and Asia (primarily for fashion) and so it was only natural that a gentleman interested in country pursuits should show off with a display of the finest, most highly decorative salmon flies that money could buy, whilst his wife paraded around with a dead bird on her hat. 

Cut to the present day…

For some bizzare reason, people are still interested in creating Victorian salmon flies (I guess everyone has to have a hobby). However, many of the materials required are now protected by law – the Victorians pretty much decimated much of the natural populations of thousands of animal species, particularly exotic birds. So, demand for rare feathers in the world of salmon fly tiers is particularly high – especially as their availability is so scarce.

Still with me?

Ok, so this is where Edwin Rist comes in. He’s a young American teenager with meagre funds but an all-consuming obsession with fly tying. Studying in the UK, he hears about the collection of bird skins that were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Darwin) who painstakingly caught, labelled and preserved exotic birds in the wild and had them shipped back to the UK for scientific research. Edwin views some of the collection (now housed at the British Museum of Natural History in Tring), scopes the place out then returns at a later date and steals hundreds of the specimins, specifically to create salmon flies (or to sell on to other tiers).

No, really. He absolutely decimates the collection of irreplaceable scientific specimens so that he can create salmon flies – display purposes only. 

The Feather Thief investigates everything from Wallace’s voyages to the tropics and the Victorian fascination with feathers to Edwin Rist himself, what happened when he raided the museum, how he was eventually caught (tiny spoiler – the museum didn’t even notice that the birds were missing for MONTHS) and also tries to trace the missing birds. It features interviews with some of the main players in the fly tying world and eventually the author even manages to talk to Rist himself. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and far more interesting than I’ve made it sound.

I loved learning all about the history of collecting bird specimens (for scientific research, private collections and for profit) and the huge industry that this created. Although this could have been a pretty dry info-dump the conversational tone of the author brought the subject matter to life. Johnson’s overall style reminded me of Bill Bryson (who as far as I’m concerned could make any subject captivating) and I could really feel how personally invested he was in the story. Although I’m pretty ignorant about the history of feather trading, The Feather Thief seemed to be very well researched and was heavily referenced throughout.

As the book progressed and Johnson focused more on the psychology of why Rist would risk everything to commit such a crime (and the arguments that his defence lawyer used to mitigate his sentencing) the manuscript becomes more of a psychological thriller. Who really is Edwin Rist? Was his sentencing fair? Where are the birds that he stole? How many members of the fly tying community knew about the heist or suspected they were buying stolen birds/feathers but didn’t say anything? Johnson investigates all of these questions and whilst he doesn’t necessarily come up with the answers, he objectively presents all of the evidence available and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Cleverly constructed, impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, The Feather Thief is an incredible book. I was completely sucked into the murkey world of salmon fly tying and the story of how a teenager could pull off such a high stakes, valuable, devastating heist with little more than some wire cutters, a rock he found on the ground and a wheelie suitcase. Seriously – just go and read it for yourself.

Rating:🌟Five felonious feather filching foreign flautists out of five🌟

Bonkers, esoteric psychological crime drama that could easily have been the plot of a of Jonathan Creek episode. Brilliantly engaging, a great pick for a true crime book that doesn’t feature a murder or violence of any kind. Weird and truly wonderful.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #2 Read a book of true crime.

 

6 thoughts on “Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

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