I picked this book up for a couple of reading challenges, but I ended up really enjoying it (it’s surprisingly difficult to find a non-violent true crime book! Or, actually is it surprising? Maybe it’s totally expected).
I basically read this in two sittings, one yesterday morning, and one after dinner. It’s only 254 pages long, and it’s a fast read (the rest of the page count is extensive notes, sources and an index). Johnson became personally obsessed with the story of a twenty year old flautist who robbed a Natural History Museum in England of irreplaceable dead bird specimens, so he could sell the skins and feathers for an enormous profit, and to supply feathers for his obsessive hobby of fly-tying (the practice of tying fishing flies).
Edwin Rist’s story fascinated Johnson not just because it was such a bizarre crime, but because of the underground world it revealed, where other tiers (this is how it’s spelled, which drives me BONKERS; I keep wanting it to be spelled “tyers”) chase rarer and rarer feathers, many of which come from endangered bird species that are protected by international treaties. They scorn replicas, and venerate the Victorian “recipes” for the flies. Most of them do not even fish.
In order to tell the story fully, though, Johnson also tells us about natural history, why the practice of collecting natural specimens is important, and the history of fly-tying (which from its beginning appeared to be a creation of rich white men attempting to elevate themselves above the lowly masses). Once we’ve got sufficient background, we hear all about the “heist” (I would actually call it a robbery; it’s not complicated enough for a heist), and its aftermath, in which Johnson actually plays a part in attempting to wrap up the investigation. The whole thing becomes more of an investigation into human obsession and greed at the expense of knowledge.
One source (a scientist) Johnson talked to said something that tickled me, so I’ll just leave this here:
“‘People don’t actually fish with this shit, right?!’ Prum said. ‘So what is it about? It’s about this fixation, this obsession with originality. Well, there’s no fuckin’ originality in the world! Who are these guys? They’re dentists from Ohio! What claim do they have to originality in anything?!’
When I told him that one of Edwin’s customers was in fact a dentist, Prum laughed. Calming down a little, he went on. ‘What I see is a story of the struggle for authenticity . . . to try to make what people are doing meaningful. What they’ve done is enshrined this in a period where English fishermen were members of a colonial power that ruled the entire globe and could extract fascinating things from it, then sell them in commercial markets.
‘But that dream is extinct,’ he said. ‘That world is gone.’
‘When I work on feathers,’ he added, ‘ knowledge is a consequence. When I pluck a feather and destroy it, we discover things about the world that nobody knew before.’ By contrast, Edwin and the feather underground were a bunch of historical fetishists, practicing a ‘candy-ass, ridiculous, parasitic activity’ that Prum would be glad to see go extinct.”
Worth checking out even if you don’t normally like true crime books. There’s also quite a bit of history and science to appreciate in here as well. What seems like it would be a really niche subject touches on so many other facets of life and history, like animal poaching and conservation efforts, ladies’ fashion, the suffragette movement, the dubious practice of using Aspergers’ (now known as Autism Spectrum Disorder) as a defense, among many other things.
Read Harder Challenge 2019: A book of nonviolent true crime