In one word: Injustice. (Bonus words: rage-inducing)
This is my second read of this harrowing historical tale. When my local book club picked it out to tackle this year, I dove back in for another listen, and I was filled with just as much anger as the first time around.
This book first came to me by way of my favorite podcast, Literary Disco. A quick plot summary: the people of the Osage Nation experienced the displacement and reloaction forced upon many indigenous peoples by the U.S. government. Their new land turned out to be oil-rich property and the Osage quickly became one of the highest concentrations of wealth in American in the 1920s. When many members of the same Osage family die under mysterious circumstances, the newly formed FBI is sent in to get to the bottom of it. What unfolds is a shocking network of interconnected plots to murder, steal, and subjugate these people, perpetuated both by high ranking officials, and their own neighbors and family members. Prepare yourself to be disgusted by what white people will do to minorities in the quest for financial gain and cultural dominance.
This novel is similar to Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City” in that it is a fantastical non-fiction story that reads like fiction. I think Devil was more successful in building suspense, but that was due to dual narrative threads. In Devil, we have the story of Holmes’ serial murders coupled with the creation of the 1893 World’s (Which if you haven’t read it, is another must read, but I digress). In Killers, Grann is telling only one story, so there is less relief from the grisly action, but told in a way that preserves mystery and builds intrigue. The portrait of Tom White, the lead FBI investigator, was the only real relief from the “reign of terror,” as he is shown to be an ethical and thoughtful lawman intent on getting answers for the Osage. This is an awful story about awful people doing awful things to innocent people. It was a story that sensationalized the nation during its time, and was even mentioned in the 1959 movie “The FBI Story” starring Jimmy Stewart, but I certainly hadn’t heard of it and everyone should read this book.
Many in the book club struggled to follow the story noting the non-linear narrative and with the vast number of characters, it can be hard to follow, but I give him all the credit in the world. I imagine that as Grann researched, more and more names came to light of other members of the Osage community, murdered, forgotten, never investigated, and he did all he could to have them remembered. If I was rating this book on structure and writing alone, it would get a four, but I round it up to a five because he gets a bonus point in the last act for SOLVING MORE MURDERS THAN THE FREAKIN’ FBI. They penned the reign of terror from 1921-1925, but Grann’s thorough research and dot-connecting show that the first murder was well before that and the last maybe 10 years after 1925. There is no way to know just how many people were murdered and families ruined all for this land.
Also, for those with young readers, I was excited to discover a version of this book for your readers. I don’t know if my 13-year-old will read it, but you bet your ass I snagged it and brought it home. Knowledge. Is. Power. Finally, speaking of adaptations, this story is finally hitting the big screen later in 2022. It looks to be another Scorcese powerhouse starring DiCaprio (obviously) and with DeNiro in the role of Hale, the insidious mastermind of the murder plot to kill the Osage and gain their oil rights.