Just in time for summer reading, this engaging true-crime thriller is actually three books in one. As the title implies, this is one bizarre crime: on a June evening in 2009, 20-year-old American music student and accomplished fly tyer Edwin Rist smashed an alley window and hoisted himself into the renowned British Museum of Natural History in Tring with a singular purpose, to steal some of the world’s rarest old birds to finance buying a gold flute. This may seem an odd way to finance a $10,000 instrument, yet individual skins can sell for $2,500 or more in an underground fly-tying market bordering on the fanatical. After his arrest, Rist estimated he’d made northwards of $165,000 selling feathers to private collectors as well as through niche fly-tying forums and on EBay.
According to its website, the museum’s avian skin collection is the second largest of its kind in the world, with almost 750,000 specimens representing 95 percent of the world’s bird species. Included are nearly 700 skins collected by Charles Darwin and Capt. Robert FitzRoy during the six-year voyage of the HMS Beagle, and, more importantly for Rist, the extensive collection of Alfred Russel Wallace, that included rare originals needed to complete authentic Victorian flies. At one point in the book when Rist is in his late teens, his mentor gives him a bag of Indian Crow and Blue Chatterer feathers worth $250, enough to tie about two flies.
Like any of the world’s most precious substances the feathers for classic fly recipes are expensive — and usually illegal to purchase. About the only legal sources are great grandmother’s Victorian bonnet, complete with a Flame Bowerbird’s carcass, or the zoo, where perhaps a Resplendent Quetzal died of natural causes.
To understand the arcane world of showy feathers from rare or endangered birds, such as these, Johnson first introduces readers to a broad historical stage, one in which “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” and the greed for the exotic went unquenched, much like the sport hunting to near-extinction of the buffalo in our West. Women’s fashion fueled the slaughter of tens of thousands of exotic birds from the Malay Peninsula and South America for their intensely colored and sometimes iridescent feathers.Those same feathers were also thought to be best for catching fasting Scottish salmon as they came back from the ocean to spawn. Books such as George Kelson’s “The Salmon Fly” included the most precious materials — think orange and black seal’s fur — to build an engaging watery fusilade ensuring a hungerless salmon to strike.
The second section goes into detail about the heist, itself, how it was planned and what was taken. Science lovers will be particularly bereft when they realize Rist destroyed the tags on the 299 skins he stole that told where the specimen was collected, as well as when and other critical data, some in the hand of Wallace himself. As ornithologist Jessie Williamson wrote in her review of the book, “It’s hard to overstate the tragedy of destroying irreplaceable scientific objects. Natural-history collections are vital to our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, and environmental change, and they only grow more valuable with time. In the late 1960s, museums were critical to discovering the link between the pesticide DDT and eggshell thinning.”
Yet for what a British judge deemed “a natural history disaster of world proportions,” Rist did no jail time after pleading an Asberger’s defense, which leads to the last section, and most incredible, in which the author literally goes on a quest for justice worldwide to find and return all of the stolen skins to the Tring. After tracking Rist to Dusseldorf, the author sets up an interview with the thief, complete with a non-English speaking clandestine bodyguard outside his hotel room. Besides this dazzling piece of journalistic bravado — at this point, the cops had closed to case — Johnson also interviews a South African who is sure the rapture is forthcoming, a Norwegian, code name Goku, who may have been an accomplice and a tough American ex-cop, who now hosts a salmon fly-tying forum.
Engaging, infuriating and horizon expanding, this is one for your nightstand, one that will become a classic of fly-fishing literature.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
The Feather Thief
By Kirk Wallace Johnson
Hard Cover $16.20