Book review: The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson

This is the kind of beguiling spiral of a non-fiction work which I adore. It encompasses a vast array: Asperger's Syndrome, theft, post-traumatic stress disorder, the works of James Audubon, Izaak Walton and Alfred Russel Wallace, the eccentricities of Lord Lionel Rothschild, the formation of the RSPB, women's fashions of the late Victorian era, a detective story, a Coca-Cola executive, James Bond and a Creationist. What unites it all is in the subtitle: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century.

Kirk Wallace Johnson

In 2009, there was a robbery at the Natural History Museum faculty in Tring. The thief was an accomplished flautist, Edwin Rist, originally from America but studying in London. He snipped barbed wire, smashed a window and then stuffed a suitcase with what he wanted: specifically, dead birds. He was after them for a simple reason – the art of fly-fishing. Not that he even owned a rod; but because the art of fly-tying had obsessed him as much, it seems, as his desire to possess a golden flute.

Rist was a figure of more than a little standing in the fly-tying community. Indeed, he was widely hailed as the leading individual of his generation and the person who might bring in a new renaissance in the frankly arcane craft. But to create his work – and knowing how much others were similarly obsessed – he needed feathers. In the Tring Museum there were plenty, and less security than one might think. This may seem prankish or merely loopy, but the amounts were staggering. One bird, bought for him by his father, cost $2,500. After his robbery, he had 299 birds including Indian Crows, King Birds of Paradise and Resplendent Quetzals. But the trick of any such theft is not how to grab the goods but how to sell them on.

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Kirk Wallace Johnson has previously written about his time in Iraq, trying to help in Fallujah and then trying to assist in resettling refugees. Here he boldly puts in his own story: it was a casual remark made by a friend with whom he was fly-fishing that alerted him to the tale. The reason he was fly-fishing was that he had found it a therapeutic exercise given his war-time experiences and his frustrations trying to co-ordinate the immigration question. The throwaway reference to Rist leads him into an obsession as obsessive as the obsessives he encounters. It is not solving the case per se, since Rist had been found guilty, although because he was “on the spectrum” he didn’t serve any prison time. It was the other bothersome things. Had he acted alone? Where were the birds that he had taken?

The most fascinating parts of this book are when Johnson delves deeper and deeper into a subculture of fly-tiers. His encounters with them are invariably wonderfully weird. It is a place of high privilege linked to dogged determination. To have a particular feather means everything, even though its chances of ever hitting water are low to zero. It stays precise about the

various motivations. To Rist, it seems, it was about aesthetics. Why should his raw materials lie mouldering in a cupboard? That it was pecuniary – and there is an immensely moving moment about his parents needing cash – was also a factor.

To the ornithologists at Tring, these specimens could have yielded new knowledge as science progressed. Collector Alfred Russel Wallace had been exceptionally specific about exactly where a particular bird came from, and how that informed his parallel thesis on evolution alongside Darwin’s. Things he could never have dreamed of meant that the specifics of diet, for example, could be understood using DNA analysis. That Rist, to sell on the items, cut off the labels reveals everything about the difference between the two approaches to nature: to be understood or to be a form of embellishment.

I doubt very much indeed that I will read a book again in which a Korean-Norwegian will play such a significant part. But the contribution of Long Nguyen, is affecting. His actions may have been questionable, basically fencing some of the goods, but his change of heart – there is no real need to use an endangered species in this particular form of craft – is one of the book’s moral high points. Another point of significant interest is the extent to which the internet is a silent character. Johnson looks at various, vaguely cultish sites on the art of tying fish-flies, and learns how to recover or uncover what has been said. The very fact that some sites have deleted all discussions about Tring or Rist is telling.

It would be wrong to give away the ending. Our quester, a kind of plumalogical Philip Marlowe, struggles and squirms at his meetings with these people. There is a firm narrative drive in him trying to understand this mystery; there is an emotional core in his reasons for doing so; there is much to be learnt as he guides the reader along. Take for example a fact I will never forget: the feathers on the Titanic were insured for more than the diamonds.

The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson, Head of Zeus, £20