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The Feather Thief
Cover of The Feather Thief
The Feather Thief
Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
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"Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
"One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." —Christian Science Monitor
A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, for readers of The Stranger in the Woods, The Lost City of Z, and The Orchid Thief.
On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London's Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin's obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins—some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Russel Wallace, who'd risked everything to gather them—and escaped into the darkness.
Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man's destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.
"Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
"One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." —Christian Science Monitor
A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, for readers of The Stranger in the Woods, The Lost City of Z, and The Orchid Thief.
On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London's Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin's obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins—some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Russel Wallace, who'd risked everything to gather them—and escaped into the darkness.
Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man's destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.
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  • From the book PROLOGUE

    By the time Edwin Rist stepped off the train onto the platform at Tring, forty miles north of London, it was already quite late. The residents of the sleepy town had finished their suppers; the little ones were in bed. As he began the long walk into town, the Midland line glided off into darkness.

    A few hours earlier Edwin had performed in the Royal Academy of Music's "London Soundscapes," a celebration of Hayden, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Before the concert, he'd packed a pair of latex gloves, a miniature LED flashlight, a wire cutter, and a diamond-blade glass cutter in a large rolling suitcase, and stowed it in his concert hall locker. He bore a passing resemblance to a lanky Pete Townshend: intense eyes, prominent nose, and a mop of hair, although instead of shredding a Fender, Edwin played the flute.

    There was a new moon that evening, making the already-gloomy stretch of road even darker. For nearly an hour, he dragged his suit- case through the mud and gravel skirting the road, under gnarly old trees strangled with ivy. Turlhanger's Wood slept to the north, Chestnut Wood to the south, fallow fields and the occasional copse in between.

    A car blasted by, its headlights blinding. Adrenaline coursing, he knew he was getting close.

    The entrance to the market town of Tring is guarded by a sixteenth-century pub called the Robin Hood. A few roads beyond, nestled between the old Tring Brewery and an HSBC branch, lies the entrance to Public Footpath 37. Known to locals as Bank Alley, the footpath isn't more than eight feet wide and is framed by seven-foot-high brick walls.

    Edwin slipped into the alley, into total darkness. He groped his way along until he was standing directly behind the building he'd spent months casing.

    All that separated him from it was the wall. Capped with three rusted strands of barbed wire, it might have thwarted his plans were it not for the wire cutter. After clearing an opening, he lifted the suitcase to the ledge, hoisted himself up, and glanced anxiously about. No sign of the guard. There was a space of several feet between his perch on the wall and the building's nearest window, forming a small ravine. If he fell, he could injure himself—or worse, make a clamor that would summon security. But he'd known this part wouldn't be easy.

    Crouched on top of the wall, he reached toward the window with the glass cutter and began to grind it along the pane. Cutting glass was harder than he had anticipated, though, and as he struggled to carve an opening, the glass cutter slipped from his hand and fell into the ravine. His mind raced. Was this a sign? He was think- ing about bailing on the whole crazy scheme when that voice, the one that had urged him onward these past months, shouted Wait a minute! You can't give up now. You've come all this way!

    He crawled back down and picked up a rock. Steadying himself atop the wall, he peered around in search of guards before bashing the window out, wedging his suitcase through the shard-strewn opening, and climbing into the British Natural History Museum.

    Unaware that he had just tripped an alarm in the security guard's office, Edwin pulled out the LED light, which cast a faint glow in front of him as he made his way down the hallways toward the vault, just as he'd rehearsed in his mind.

    He wheeled his suitcase quietly through corridor after corridor, drawing ever closer to the most beautiful things he had ever seen. If he pulled this off, they would bring him fame, wealth, and prestige. They would solve his problems. He deserved them.

    He entered the vault, its...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from November 13, 2017
    Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal) makes his true-crime debut with this enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime. In 2009, Edwin Rist, an American student at London’s Royal Academy of Music, stole 299 rare and scientifically significant bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, England, plucked their feathers, and sold them for top dollar to men who shared his obsession with the Victorian art of salmon-fly tying. Johnson explores the expensive and exotic hobby of salmon-fly tying that emerged in the 19th century and uses that context to frame Rist’s story, including his trial. Rist did not serve jail time after his lawyers successfully argued that Asperger’s syndrome was to blame for his crime. In the book’s final section, Johnson goes deep into the exotic bird and feather trade and concludes that though obsession and greed know no bounds, they certainly make for a fascinating tale. The result is a page-turner that will likely appeal to science, history, and true crime readers.

  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2018
    A captivating tale of beautiful, rare, priceless, and stolen feathers.Journalist Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind, 2013) was fly-fishing in a New Mexico stream when he first heard about the "feather thief" from his guide. The author became obsessed with the story of Edwin Rist, a young American flautist and expert tier of salmon flies, who, after performing at a June 2009 London concert, broke into the nearby British Natural History Museum at Tring to steal 299 rare bird skins, including 37 of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace's "beloved" Birds of Paradise. Johnson dove headfirst into a five-year journey "deep into the feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, cokeheads and big game hunters, ex-detectives and shady dentists." Everything the author touches in this thoroughly engaging true-crime tale turns to storytelling gold. These intriguing tales include that of Darwin rival Wallace's extreme hardships trying to gather rare birds from around the world and losing many of them in a sinking ship; the incredibly wealthy Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild's museum at Tring, which his father built for him when he was 29 to house his extensive collection of animals and birds, alive and dead; and the sad history of 19th-century women demanding the most exotic birds for their fashionable hats, which resulted in hundreds of millions of birds being killed. Throughout, Johnson's flair for telling an engrossing story is, like the beautiful birds he describes, exquisite. Furthermore, like an accomplished crime reporter, the author recounts the story of how Rist was located and arrested by a local, female detective nearly 15 months after the break-in; the trial, which features an unexpected twist; and the fate of much of his booty.A superb tale about obsession, nature, and man's "unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost."

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 15, 2018

    On June 24, 2009, a break in occurred at the British Natural History Museum at Tring. Nothing of value seemed to be missing, but several months later, the museum discovered that hundreds of rare birds, some of them collected by Darwin competitor Alfred Russell Wallace, had been stolen by fishing-lure aficionados. The author, a fly fisherman himself, stumbled on this story and found himself tumbling down a rabbit hole of obsessed Victorian fly-tiers, who need the feathers of now-endangered or extinct bird species to replicate the artistic lures created decades ago. The feathers themselves are worth a small fortune, and while the thief, American Edwin Rist, was captured, many of the birds' skins remained missing. Johnson took up the search within the secretive brotherhood of fly-tiers, tracking down new leads and interviewing wary or openly hostile members. The result is a mind-blowing account of a modern subculture and a riveting historical tour of the feather trade from the 1800s to the present. The resolution, however, is frustrating and demonstrates both the importance and difficulty of preserving our natural history. VERDICT A different kind of detective tale that will appeal to lovers of natural history and criminal caper stories. [See Prepub Alert, 10/29/17.]--Deirdre Bray Root, formerly with MidPointe Lib. Syst., OH

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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The Feather Thief
The Feather Thief
Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
Kirk Wallace Johnson
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