A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Thursday, April 23, 2020

TRUE CRIME THURSDAY-The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson- Feature and Review


A rollicking true-crime adventure and a thought-provoking exploration of the human drive to possess natural beauty 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.



The Feather ThiefThe Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson is a 2019 Penguin publication.

This is another book that has sat on my TBR list for an entire year. I added it because it was labeled as true crime and because the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. However, every time I thought about reading it, I changed my mind, because I wasn’t sure if I would fully understand the premise, for one thing, and for another, I was afraid it would bore me silly. It just didn’t sound like a topic that would interest me in the least. I decided I should at least give it a try, because all those positive reviews had to mean something, right?

I admit I still don’t fully understand fly fishing, or the obsession with Salmon fliers. I still don’t have any interest in the sport, and I never will- but one thing is for sure- I was never bored while reading this book!

It seems there is nothing out there in this world that doesn’t have a dark underbelly…

The author of this book first learned of Edwin Rist while fly fishing in Mexico, and quickly became as obsessed with this crime as Edwin Rist was with rare bird skins and Salmon fliers.

What are Salmon fliers? Apparently, they are a brightly colored lure, made with bird feathers that mimics small fish, which Salmon will snap at. Victorian, exotic, or rare feathers are highly sought after by collectors and expert ‘tyers’.

Edwin Rist, a musician, also happened to be an expert Salmon tyer. To that end, in 2009, Edwin broke into the British Natural History Museum and stole 299 rare bird skins, including 37 Birds of Paradise.

Once Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about this most unusual heist, he jumped down the rabbit hole with both feet, beginning a long journey for the truth, which culminated in this book.

I don’t understand the concept of being an expert ‘tyer’ if you don’t even fly fish. Not only that, it is my understanding that the salmon can’t tell the difference anyway. It all seemed like such a tremendous waste. The history, however, that sets these events in motion is utterly fascinating, if a bit peculiar.

The author traces the origins of the feathers and how they came to be in the museum, which is far more interesting than one might think. From there the book builds into a detective story, then a legal drama, then finally a personal quest for the whole truth and maybe some modicum of justice.

Not to give too much away, but evidently, Rist earned some money from his daring heist, selling some of the feathers/ skins on the black market. Yes, there really is a black market for these feathers and a lucrative one at that. I knew one could find all manner of things for sale on eBay but – vintage bird feathers?

While Rist was eventually caught, his legal troubles didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated,which is one of the reasons why Johnson felt compelled to draw out as much of the truth as possible.

Some mysteries remain unsolved, but one can take a few educated guesses about what happened and why, though that knowledge doesn’t bring about much satisfaction.

Today, Rist uses a different name, and has carved out a unique niche for himself by playing heavy metal music with his flute- perhaps the flute he bought with his eBay profits. (Johnson didn’t reveal Rist's assumed name, but a simple Google search brought up his infamous Metallica cover of ‘Master of Puppets’ right away-you have to see it to believe it.)

Rist, who claims to suffer from Asperger's syndrome is clever, educated, talented and skilled, and while his crime is not a violent one, he still did a horrible thing- and based on Johnson's exclusive interviews with Rist, he comes off as a greedy, little sociopath who never expressed the proper amount of remorse for his crimes. I’m afraid I did not find him to be sympathetic character at all- sorry, not sorry...

As to the writing and organization of the book- the presentation is very well done. However, the author does take an interesting stance here. He took a risk, in my opinion, by inserting himself into the saga by calling out the fly-fishing community for their role in helping to create the atmosphere within in this sub-culture that makes this crime, and others like it, so alluring- and lucrative. He seems to feel they, too are responsible- although his words have probably fallen on deaf ears.

I usually become exasperated if an author refuses to maintain strict neutrality when writing nonfiction. I want the facts, not the author's interpretation of them, or his or her opinion. In this case, however, I can understand why Johnson felt compelled to make such a bold move and he was right in doing so.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating True Crime saga. I found myself immersed in it, more than I ever imagined possible. I learned some interesting history, and a lot about bird feathers/skins, salmon fliers and expert tiers, as well the strange obsessions of men. The greed that results from these obsessions, of course, is a story as old as man.

While this may not sound like a book that would appeal to a broad audience, it should. Those familiar with the sport of fly-fishing will understand aspects and nuances many of us never will, about this case, but historians, true crime readers, mystery fans and even fans of legal dramas, will find this to be a very compelling story.






Kirk W. Johnson is the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, and the author of To Be a Friend is Fatal: the Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.

His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy, among others.

Prior to the List Project, Johnson served in Iraq with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad and then Fallujah as the Agency’s first coordinator for reconstruction in the war-torn city.

He is a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and the recipient of fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin, Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Wurlitzer Foundation. Prior to his work in Iraq, he conducted research on political Islamism as a Fulbright Scholar in Egypt. Johnson received his BA from the University of Chicago in 2002.

Born in West Chicago, he lives with his wife and son in Los Angeles.

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