Non-Fiction: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steven Nester, host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Stephen Mack Jones’ debut crime novel, August Snow.)

While on a fly-fishing trip to New Mexico in 2011, author Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about an intriguing heist. His river guide mentioned a young man by the name of Edwin Rist, a 2009 museum break-in, and rare bird skins dating back hundreds of years. Johnson found the saga of Rist a tale worth telling—and it certainly is, as one quickly discovers in The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (Viking). Immersing himself in the arcane and sometimes secretive world of salmon-fly tiers, many of whom rely on the feathers and plumes of protected and nearly extinct tropical birds for their creations, Johnson ranged far and wide in researching this book to flesh out its narrative beyond the mere story of a crime. Over the course of The Feather Thief, Johnson—a master of erudition, concision and simplicity—will make you slightly conversant in evolution, Asperger’s Syndrome, ecology, woman’s fashions at the turn of the last century, the rise of the British Empire, and exotic birds among many other things, without ever coming across as a prig. And all of that information is wrapped around a story worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Edwin Rist was a 22-year-old home-schooled prodigy from upstate New York, whose talent as a flautist took him to England and to the eventual scene of his crime. Earlier, while barely a teen, he had discovered another talent, that of tying salmon flies. Such gaudy creations of feather and fur are meant to entice and hook the king of fish. The instructions for their assembly, called “recipes,” were created and codified by the Victorian masters who invented the art. Those historical experts employed in their lures the feathers of such highly sought-after birds as the Indian crow, the bird-of-paradise, the resplendent quetzal and scarlet minivets, all which inhabit rain forests in the remotest parts of the world and are nowadays protected by law. The feathers of those birds, once plucked without compunction, provide “a snapshot of the British Empire at mid-century,” writes Johnson. Perhaps, but their appeal as culinary bait must be leavened with a bit of practical sense. Plainly said, salmon flies aren’t all that effective. Salmon, explains Johnson, “can be caught with dog fur tied to a hook and a bit of luck.” If so, why were the expensive and sometimes illegal feathers of tropical birds used in their creation? Because a “pseudo-science” grew up around this fly-tying practice, which upon a cursory inspection is more of an art form than anything else. The salmon aren’t actually hungry, they’re just at the end of their life-cycle, trying to protect their just-laid eggs, and will snap at just about anything that comes near them. Nonetheless, salmon-fly tying has become an abstruse art, with those lures created and esteemed by a handful of modern practitioners who adhere to old-school materials. And that’s a problem.

Substituting man-made materials for exotic ones is common practice, but to people with deep pockets and purist tastes, it’s not quite cricket. Warns Johnson, “You not only have to know materials, but you have to know the law”—which Rist evidently did, and ignored.

When he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in London, Rist was about as close as he’d ever been to tens of thousands of rare bird skins (“feather porn” to aficionados) located at the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire. Just a train ride away from London, many of the birds at the Tring had been collected by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a self-taught naturalist credited as one of the 19th century’s leading evolutionary thinkers. Wallace’s expeditions in pursuit of knowledge were pioneering and occasionally disastrous. Hundreds of bird specimens he collected in South America’s Amazon region went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1852, after the ship he was sailing aboard caught fire; Wallace barely escaped with his life. Eventually, he was able to join another exploratory voyage, this one to the Malaysian Archipelago. It was the fruits on that latter expedition to which Rist helped himself.

On June 24, 2009, Rist broke into the Tring museum and made off with hundreds of brightly colored skins, putting him in the enviable position of owning one of the greatest collections of bird skins ever amassed. Subsequently, the anonymity of the internet and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture of salmon-fly tiers enabled Rist to sell individual feathers and entire birds for quite a bit of money. But his activities soon drew unwanted attention to fly tiers—honest and otherwise—who preferred to keep to themselves and stay on the right side of the law.

In The Feather Thief, Johnson takes us into the tight-knit world of those fly tiers; and though mention of them might bring to mind tweed and discretion, such genteel salmon devotees prove to be every bit as devious as back-alley deal makers. One can easily imagine a member of that fraternity being asked by Fish and Game authorities, “How did you come to have a handful of feathers from the fabled and law-protected bird-of-paradise?” To which the clever fly-tier might reply, “From great-grandmother’s hat found in the attic.”

Rist wasn’t so smooth as all that. When he was caught a year after committing his burglary, he insisted he’d done it in order to liberate the skins so they might be appreciated through the artistry of the salmon-fly rather than remaining locked up in a museum cabinet, unviewed for decades. (The Tring museum collection, one learns, was in desperate need of an audit!) Some skins were recovered, while others were not. This led Johnson to the British capital and into an interview with Rist (who, according to the BBC, had been fined £125,150 for his crime and received a “12-month jail sentence, suspended for two years”), as well to faraway Norway where a shady friend and fellow fly-tying wunderkind resides.

So what became of those stolen bird skins that weren’t recovered after Edwin Rist’s arrest in 2010? Kirk Wallace Johnson introduces enough players in this game to suggest who might have had a hand in their sale and use. But he notes that most fly-tiers shut their doors to him after he shined a light on them, so—sadly—we’ll probably never know the answer to this particular mystery. ◊

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