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The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

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As heard on NPR's This American Life "Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." --Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air "One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." --Christian Science Monitor A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical As heard on NPR's This American Life "Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." --Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air "One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." --Christian Science Monitor A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, 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.


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As heard on NPR's This American Life "Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." --Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air "One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." --Christian Science Monitor A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical As heard on NPR's This American Life "Absorbing . . . Though it's non-fiction, The Feather Thief contains many of the elements of a classic thriller." --Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air "One of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books ever." --Christian Science Monitor A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, 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.

30 review for The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century

  1. 4 out of 5

    J.L. Sutton

    Described as the pursuit of justice in the feather underground, Kirk Wallace Johnson's The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century delivers. Picking this book up, I wasn't sure what to expect. One thing for sure is that this book is about so much more than the crime (Edwin Rist stealing somewhere in the range of $1M worth of rare feathers primarily collected during the Victorian era). In a very accessible way, Johnson recounts the obsession of Victorians to Described as the pursuit of justice in the feather underground, Kirk Wallace Johnson's The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century delivers. Picking this book up, I wasn't sure what to expect. One thing for sure is that this book is about so much more than the crime (Edwin Rist stealing somewhere in the range of $1M worth of rare feathers primarily collected during the Victorian era). In a very accessible way, Johnson recounts the obsession of Victorians to collect things (including rare bird feathers) which pushed specific bird populations to extinction or the brink of extinction. Enter present-day fly-tiers who are obsessed with creating ties with the those rare and exotic feathers and are not overly concerned where these feathers come from. Insightful and compelling! 4.25 stars.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    An online forum recently posted a list of true crime without murder or violence. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century would fit the bill as no murder nor physical harm befalls any person. Yet is any crime without a victim? Each reader would come up with a different list of who or what was affected by the events that are related in this book. Perhaps not as disturbing as the loss of life or a brutal rape or abuse, but still a story of devastating loss An online forum recently posted a list of true crime without murder or violence. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century would fit the bill as no murder nor physical harm befalls any person. Yet is any crime without a victim? Each reader would come up with a different list of who or what was affected by the events that are related in this book. Perhaps not as disturbing as the loss of life or a brutal rape or abuse, but still a story of devastating loss. I could not summarize what this book is about better than this quote from author, Kirk Wallace Johnson. ”Initially, the story of the Tring heist—filled with quirky and obsessive individuals, strange birds, curio-filled museums, archaic fly recipes, Victorian hats, plume smugglers, grave robbers, and, at the heart of it all, a flute-playing thief—had been a welcome diversion from the unrelenting pressure of my work with refugees.” It is always fascinating to hear where the idea of a book is born. In the above quote Johnson refers to his work with refugees, this being his way of righting a wrong he saw first hand in his job reconstructing the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Overtired, he walked out a window which he refers to as a “PTSD-triggered fugue state” in which he nearly died. While recovering he launched a non-profit to help the refugees but when he needed a break it was trout fishing that provided relaxation. Quietly fishing the Red River in Taos, New Mexico with fly-fishing guide Spencer Seim, he first heard the name Edwin Rist, one of the best fly tiers “on the planet” who Seim went on to say ”broke into the British Museum of Natural History just to get birds for these flies.”. This one brief conversation soon became an obsession with Johnson to find out the true story, what really happened during the robbery at Tring where drawers of bird specimens came to be stored during World War II, in the mansion of Lord Walter Rothschild. What motivated Rist an American talented musician and fly-tier to commit this crime? The outcome, the finished book, proved to be all that I love in narrative non-fiction. It is a detailed exploration of not only the history of the intricacy and craft of ties and their creators but also the background of the birds, their role in evolution, the beauty of their plumes which were used for fashion almost to the extinction of some species (imagine a shawl made from 8,000 Hummingbird skins) and the quest to ensure their continued existence. My craving for adventure came in the story of Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, whose first expedition to collect specimens in exotic places ended with all being lost in a ship fire. Eight more years of perseverance netted Wallace many species including 8,050 birds which were sold to the British Museum. Extensive research and the interweaving of these themes by Johnson kept The Feather Thief from being mundane, instead it was thrillingly captivating. It is bound to be one of my favorite books not only of 2018 but of all time. I only wish there had been more photos of the birds whose feathers were a primary picture of the story. The many birding guides on my shelf satisfied my thirst for the splendor of these magnificent creatures.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern ob The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern obsessions with music, fly-fishing and refugees. Author Kirk Wallace Johnson worked for USAID in Iraq, heading up the reconstruction of Fallujah, then founded a non-profit organization rehoming refugees in America. Plagued by PTSD, he turned to fly-fishing as therapy, and this was how he heard about the curious case of Edwin Rist, who stole the bird specimens from Tring to sell the bright feathers to fellow hobbyists who tie elaborate Victorian-style fishing flies. Rist, from upstate New York, was a 20-year-old flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Since age 11 he’d been fixated on fly-tying, especially old-fashioned salmon ties, which use exotic feathers or ordinary ones dyed to look like them. An online friend told him he should check out Tring – the museum Walter Rothschild’s financier father built for him as a twenty-first birthday present – when he got to London. In 2008 Rist scoped out the collection, pretending to be photographing the birds of paradise for a friend’s book. A year later he took the train to Tring one summer night with an empty suitcase and a glass cutter, broke in through a window, stole 300 bird skins, and made it back to his flat without incident. The museum only discovered the crime a month later, by accident. Rist sold many feathers and whole birds via a fly-tying forum and on eBay. It was nearly another year and a half before the police knocked on his door, having been alerted by a former law enforcement officer who encountered a museum-grade bird skin at the Dutch Fly Fair and asked where it came from. Here is where things get really interesting, at least for me. Rist confessed immediately, but a psychological evaluation diagnosed him with Asperger’s; on the strength of that mental health defense he was given a suspension and a large fine, but no jail time, so he graduated from the Royal Academy as normal and auditioned for jobs. The precedent was a case from 2000 in which a young man with Asperger’s who stole human remains from a Bristol graveyard was exonerated. The book is in three parts: the first gives historical context about specimen collection and the early feather trade; the second is a blow-by-blow of Rist’s crime and the aftermath, including the trial; and the third goes into Wallace’s own investigation process. He started by attending a fly-tying symposium, where he felt like an outsider and even received vague threats: Rist was now a no-go subject for this community. But Wallace wasn’t going to be deterred. Sixty-four bird skins were still missing, and his quest was to track them down. He started by contacting Rist’s confirmed customers, then interviewed Rist himself in Germany and traveled to Norway to meet someone who might have been Rist’s accomplice – or fall guy. I happened to be a bit too familiar with the related history – I’ve read a lot of books that touch on Alfred Russel Wallace, whose specimens formed the core of the Tring collection, as well as a whole book on the feather trade for women’s hats and the movement against the extermination, which led to the formation of the Audubon Society (Kris Radish’s The Year of Necessary Lies). This meant that I was a little impatient with the first few chapters, but if you are new to these subjects you shouldn’t have that problem. For me the highlights were the reconstruction of the crime itself and Wallace’s inquiry into whether the Asperger’s diagnosis was accurate and a fair excuse for Rist’s behavior. This whole story is stranger than fiction, which would make it a great selection for readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction, perhaps expecting it to be dry or taxing. Far from it. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping. Originally published, with images, on my blog, Bookish Beck.

  4. 5 out of 5

    J.K. Grice

    FLY: "A fishhook dressed (as with feathers or tinsel) to suggest an insect." While not a fly fisherman, I myself am an avid fisherman. The author Kirk Johnson was fly fishing with a friend several years ago when he learned the fascinating and bizarre story of a young American man named Edwin Rist. At the age of 20, Edwin broke into the British Museum of Natural History's ornithological building and stole 299 rare bird specimens (skins). Many of these birds had been collected by the famous natural FLY: "A fishhook dressed (as with feathers or tinsel) to suggest an insect." While not a fly fisherman, I myself am an avid fisherman. The author Kirk Johnson was fly fishing with a friend several years ago when he learned the fascinating and bizarre story of a young American man named Edwin Rist. At the age of 20, Edwin broke into the British Museum of Natural History's ornithological building and stole 299 rare bird specimens (skins). Many of these birds had been collected by the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who was a contemporary of Charles Darwin. Edwin was a music student in England and was an accomplished flautist, with a bright future ahead of him playing professionally in Berlin upon graduation. Why on earth would a gifted flute player commit such an odd crime as specimen theft from a museum? In THE FEATHER THIEF, Kirk Wallace Johnson superbly weaves history, art, fishing, and colorful personalities into a completely engrossing true crime adventure. I knew of course about trout flies used for fishing, and how they are tied and crafted with materials to resemble various kinds of insects. However, I had never heard of the art of Victorian Salmon Fly tying. This type of fly tying is really seen as an intricate art form, and most salmon fly tiers do not even fish. And while trout flies are quite small, Salmon flies are much larger and when completed can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There is also a great salmon fly tiers fraternity featuring shows and competitions. At an early age, Edwin Rist was not only obsessed with becoming a master flautist, but also becoming the greatest salmon fly tier in the world. Both he and his brother Anton had discovered this hobby as boys, were given lessons, and worked voraciously to perfect their craft. Of course the main component of salmon fly tying is bird feathers. And historically, not just any old feathers will do. The earliest salmon fly tiers used feathers form the Birds of Paradise, the Resplendent Quetzel, the Blue Chatterer, and the Indian Crow among many others. At the end of the 19th century, bird populations world wide dropped so dramatically from over-harvesting (mostly for ladies hats) that conservation groups were finally formed and helped to put an end to the mass slaughter and import/export of certain birds. Flash forward to the 21st century when salmon fly tying was still popular, but it was very difficult to obtain exotic bird skins. Naturally, many tiers substituted more common species, or used dyed feathers from domestic fowl. But there was still an open market to buy the feathers of rarer birds, and packets of Indian Crow or Blue Chatterer feathers could sell for hundreds of dollars on the internet. So, in his obsession to possess the finest bird skins in the world, Edwin Rist visited the Tring museum north of London and began devising a plan to steal rare bird skins for himself, as well as to sell to others. At the time, Edwin had worked very hard to indeed become one of the greatest fly tiers in the world. Would his plan be successful, or an ultimate failure? Read THE FEATHER THIEF to discover for yourself. What a mesmerizing and absorbing story. I look forward to the next book by Kirk Wallace Johnson.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Quann

    Deciding to read The Feather Thief should really come down to how much you want to know about birds. Birds are animals I'm perfectly willing to appreciate at a distance but, barring a series of childhood budgies, they've never been my particular thing. All the same, I've got mad respect for Darwin, Wallace, and their culture-rupturing scientific discovery made possible by tropical birds, so I thought this book would be up my alley. The bad thing about this audiobook is that the first half seemed Deciding to read The Feather Thief should really come down to how much you want to know about birds. Birds are animals I'm perfectly willing to appreciate at a distance but, barring a series of childhood budgies, they've never been my particular thing. All the same, I've got mad respect for Darwin, Wallace, and their culture-rupturing scientific discovery made possible by tropical birds, so I thought this book would be up my alley. The bad thing about this audiobook is that the first half seemed endlessly dull to me. I found myself trying the limits of my aural capacity, speeding up the narrator's voice to a comical clip as he talked about the history of bird collections and the fly-tying community. Some of the history was alright, but the chain of custody for Wallace's birds put me into a despondent state that was only deepened by the fly-tiers: I just didn't get it. What's more, when I wasn't sold on the fly-tying, I couldn't get into Edwin Rist's obsession with the archaic practice that drove him to steal a suitcase full of birds. Luckily, by a little over the halfway mark, Kirk W. Johnson begins to lay out his own obsession with the case of stolen bird feathers and heads out on what ends up being a pretty exciting investigation. Even though I was often bored for the first half, I ended up being compelled by what turned out to be a less obvious crime than I'd initially assumed. Indeed, the later chapters when Johnson begins to interview the fly-tying community, hunt down the lost feathers, and struggle to balance his personal life with the hunt for justice amount to a story that reminded me a bit of the podcast Serial. I don't know that I can give this a ringing endorsement, after all I almost considered giving up and moving on through most of the book. What I can offer is a suggestion: pick this one up if you have an interest in birds, but dodge it if you are coming for a true-crime thriller alone.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Alice Lippart

    Haven't read something so engrossing all year. What a fascinating and exciting book!

  7. 4 out of 5

    KC

    This is the truly amazing story of how a twenty year old American flute prodigy pulled off an unbelievable museum heist of rare and exotic bird skins and feathers. Edwin Risk loved music but also was quite enthralled in the world of fly fish tying. He spent hours perfecting his craft and while still a young teenager, became a master tier within the competitive and elusive world. In 2009 while studying at London's Royal Academy of Music, Edwin began to put forth a plan to steal rare bird specimen This is the truly amazing story of how a twenty year old American flute prodigy pulled off an unbelievable museum heist of rare and exotic bird skins and feathers. Edwin Risk loved music but also was quite enthralled in the world of fly fish tying. He spent hours perfecting his craft and while still a young teenager, became a master tier within the competitive and elusive world. In 2009 while studying at London's Royal Academy of Music, Edwin began to put forth a plan to steal rare bird specimens from the British Museum of Natural History in hopes to sell to wealthy tiers so he may be able to purchase himself a new flute. Kirk Wallace Johnson painstakingly unfolded this crime which was both peculiar and scandalous. This telling explored Edwin's consuming passion and fascination. His greed and lust forced him to ignore the devastating consequences of his actions resulting in a major blow to the nature community. An outstanding page-turner!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Ray

    What an adventure centered around the dedication of the author to try to rectify a theft from the Natural History Museum in Tring (England). The thief had an obsession with obtaining rare bird feathers for making fishing lures, but not necessarily to fish with. Apparently there is a group of people who will pay tons of money for the rarest of bird feathers to create these lures despite the fact that these birds are killed for this very purpose. There is a lot of history in this book on the destr What an adventure centered around the dedication of the author to try to rectify a theft from the Natural History Museum in Tring (England). The thief had an obsession with obtaining rare bird feathers for making fishing lures, but not necessarily to fish with. Apparently there is a group of people who will pay tons of money for the rarest of bird feathers to create these lures despite the fact that these birds are killed for this very purpose. There is a lot of history in this book on the destruction of animals, especially birds especially for fashion and the exclusivity of ownership. This is a true-crime, fascinating journey to attempt to bring to justice the "feather thief" who manages to manipulate and evade the consequences that he deserved.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kasa Cotugno

    Reminds me of The Orchid Thief in its readability and theme.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jerrie (redwritinghood)

    I was absolutely captivated by this book! Who knew there was this obsessive group who made salmon fishing ties using the feathers of endangered birds? Amazingly, they often don’t even fish with them and the salmon themselves don’t really care what’s on the tie. For many, it is an art form and an obsession so strong they commit burglary to feed it. This was a great look at wildlife research and a strange subculture at odds with it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    LeAnne: GeezerMom

    Seabiscuit. The River of Doubt. The Devil and the White City. Into the Wild. The Perfect Storm. If you're a fan of these fascinating works of non-fiction, then grab hold of this story of the feather thief before he gets away with it. The book was recommended to me by a friend who is not known for reading much, and his thrilled response to it had me intrigued. There is a theft involved, of course, but Kirk Wallace Johnson does a fine job - enough to make me wince repeatedly - of bringing into focu Seabiscuit. The River of Doubt. The Devil and the White City. Into the Wild. The Perfect Storm. If you're a fan of these fascinating works of non-fiction, then grab hold of this story of the feather thief before he gets away with it. The book was recommended to me by a friend who is not known for reading much, and his thrilled response to it had me intrigued. There is a theft involved, of course, but Kirk Wallace Johnson does a fine job - enough to make me wince repeatedly - of bringing into focus the massacre of millions of birds simply because they're pretty. In the 1800s, wildly ostentatious plumed hats were the rage. Collecting beautiful (and dead) animals was en vogue. But today? Today? I'm not telling you why these beautiful feathers were stolen. Read the book! When I started this account (which opens with the theft itself), I kept ignoring that the suitcase used for the heist had wheels. I repressed the fact that the glass cutter had been bought online. The whole museum break-in - for FEATHERS - felt like something out of an Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming story. But no - here, we learn about illegal eBay sales, feel safer when the author drops a pin on his phone when meeting a shady character, and uses screenshots of Facebook pics for evidence - this massive theft just happened, like ten years ago! Oooo, do I have opinions about the talented teenager involved. Man, am I feeling compelled to discuss this crazy heist. But most of all, I am floored over the worldwide obsession that fed the entire thing. This book did not leave me feeling happy or touched, just agog and a bit angry. If you're up for it, I highly recommend it. PS. If you're curious about the stolen goods, all of which were antique zoological specimens that were labeled to show precisely where each specimen came from, the date, and more? Take a peek at something similar to what was stolen - follow the link below. This actual seller's handle was mentioned in the book, so of course, I had to look. But I'd neither buy or steal. https://www.ebay.com/itm/Golden-Pheas...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jamie Canaves

    FANTASTIC Nonviolent True Crime I had wanted to read this one for the nonviolent true crime roundup I’d done but hadn’t been able to get a copy until now. Now if you’re thinking “But really how interesting can bird specimen theft be?” let me just tell you this book was super interesting from beginning to end, and read like a thriller that I couldn’t put down. Just 10% into the book I felt as if I’d read 10 books worth of information and adventure. You start with a museum heist by a 20-year-old flu FANTASTIC Nonviolent True Crime I had wanted to read this one for the nonviolent true crime roundup I’d done but hadn’t been able to get a copy until now. Now if you’re thinking “But really how interesting can bird specimen theft be?” let me just tell you this book was super interesting from beginning to end, and read like a thriller that I couldn’t put down. Just 10% into the book I felt as if I’d read 10 books worth of information and adventure. You start with a museum heist by a 20-year-old flutist, and then go on historical expeditions with everything from thieving ants, to Charles Darwin, and blackmail. And that’s just the very beginning of this very banana pants true story because why would a university student steal HUNDREDS of rare bird specimens? Well, you see, there is a community of fly tiers which uses, and obsessively covet, the rarest bird feathers. And there’s also the author, a refugee advocate, who got involved in this story and needed to know after the trial what was still unknown and began to investigate himself–because of course this book had plot twists! It’s a fascinating look at a crime (which not only stole property but potential knowledge from the museum), obsession, and man’s destructive need to conquer and own nature. --from Book Riot's Unusual Suspects newsletter: http://link.bookriot.com/view/56a8200...

  13. 4 out of 5

    K.

    Trigger warnings: animal death, blood, a lot of bullshit around autism. I've been hearing really good things about this book for the past couple of months, so when I stumbled across it in the true crime section of my library, I picked it up. I found it a struggle to get into, to be perfectly honest, and I can't quite pinpoint why. Maybe it's the fact that so much of the story revolves around making fishing flies and I genuinely cannot imagine being even vaguely interested in making fishing flies Trigger warnings: animal death, blood, a lot of bullshit around autism. I've been hearing really good things about this book for the past couple of months, so when I stumbled across it in the true crime section of my library, I picked it up. I found it a struggle to get into, to be perfectly honest, and I can't quite pinpoint why. Maybe it's the fact that so much of the story revolves around making fishing flies and I genuinely cannot imagine being even vaguely interested in making fishing flies. That said, once I settled down and pushed through the first few chapters, this was a WILD RIDE. I don't know what's more ripped-from-a-Hollywood-heist-movie: the fact that he broke into a museum to steal tens of thousands of dollars worth of taxidermied birds to sell online to fly fishing enthusiasts or the fact that he was doing it so he could buy a solid gold flute. There were twists and turns aplenty, although I have to say I really could have done without the twist where he was diagnosed as autistic and in a later interview he reveals that he basically copied what he knew were traits of autism because he knew he'd basically get off with no jail time if he were diagnosed as autistic. That...was pretty gross, tbh. But that's 100% on him and not the author. That aside, this was honestly one of the most peculiar and compelling books I think I've ever read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Emily Goenner

    I flew through the first two sections. Johnson provides a history and tells the heist story in a way that makes feathers fascinating. The last section, though, which tells his story of his obsession, was less interesting to me and a shift from telling the story to personalizing the story; the end didn't work for me but the book is well worth the read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kristen Beverly

    This is such a weird but fantastic book. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, i mean, we’re talking about feathers, right? Feathers? Aren’t there bigger issues going on in the world right now? But it sucks you in & somehow you find yourself thinking, what happened to those feathers? Where did they go? What did Edwin do with them? So crazy how it twists your mind into actually caring about some feathers and what happened to them. :)

  16. 5 out of 5

    April Cote

    I read this nonstop, completely drawn into this bizarre true crime. Who knew a crime about a man stealing a historical collection and thousands of dollars worth of dead birds from a museum so he could use the feathers to make salmon fly catchers could be so fascinating!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Laura Noggle

    One Sentence Summary: An ornithological true crime heist with a comprehensive history of the devastation mankind has inflicted on various avian species. Favorite Quote: “Initially, the story of the Tring heist—filled with quirky and obsessive individuals, strange birds, curio-filled museums, archaic fly recipes, Victorian hats, plume smugglers, grave robbers, and, at the heart of it all, a flute-playing thief—had been a welcome diversion from the unrelenting pressure of my work with refugees.” An i One Sentence Summary: An ornithological true crime heist with a comprehensive history of the devastation mankind has inflicted on various avian species. Favorite Quote: “Initially, the story of the Tring heist—filled with quirky and obsessive individuals, strange birds, curio-filled museums, archaic fly recipes, Victorian hats, plume smugglers, grave robbers, and, at the heart of it all, a flute-playing thief—had been a welcome diversion from the unrelenting pressure of my work with refugees.” An informative exploration of feathers and humans. The story is as much about the author's awareness and obsession over the feather caper as it is about the actual pilferage and perpetrators. Educational and entertaining.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Yun

    The Feather Thief tells the true-crime tale of Edwin Rist robbing the British Museum of Natural History of hundreds of irreplaceable bird skins, and the greed, obsession, and twisted logic that had compelled him to do so. For me, the most interesting part of this book was the discussion on birds and how knowledge about them led to scientific breakthroughs around sexual selection. I also enjoyed learning about what museums do with old bird specimens, and how they contribute to scientific progress The Feather Thief tells the true-crime tale of Edwin Rist robbing the British Museum of Natural History of hundreds of irreplaceable bird skins, and the greed, obsession, and twisted logic that had compelled him to do so. For me, the most interesting part of this book was the discussion on birds and how knowledge about them led to scientific breakthroughs around sexual selection. I also enjoyed learning about what museums do with old bird specimens, and how they contribute to scientific progress. The book also spends a lot of time covering Edwin's hobby of fly-tying and its community of hobbyists, and I didn't find that very interesting or palatable. The fact that people would pluck feathers from near extinct or protected birds just to tie a fly that they don't even use to fish (many of them don't know how to fish) is wasteful and silly. It was especially hard to read about their cavalier attitudes towards the robbery, explaining away the disappearance of irreplaceable artifacts by asking why museums needed so many of these bird specimens in the first place. In the end, this book is an interesting tale of an unusual robbery, but my enjoyment of it was curtailed by the greed and attitude of Edwin and his like-minded fly-tying community. I find birds to be fascinating and scientific advancement to be of paramount importance, so it was really hard for me to read about people actively working against that just so they can make trinkets.

  19. 4 out of 5

    The Captain

    Ahoy there mateys! This be one a true crime book about one of the greatest naturalist thefts of all time – of bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History. The reason – their feathers for use in fishing lures. Aye matey, ye did read that correctly. Fishing lures that aren’t even used to fish. Who would think that that would be a big business? Well this book looks into the theft of the birds by a 20 year old flutist studying in London. That part ended unsatisfactorily by me standards. Bu Ahoy there mateys! This be one a true crime book about one of the greatest naturalist thefts of all time – of bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History. The reason – their feathers for use in fishing lures. Aye matey, ye did read that correctly. Fishing lures that aren’t even used to fish. Who would think that that would be a big business? Well this book looks into the theft of the birds by a 20 year old flutist studying in London. That part ended unsatisfactorily by me standards. But this is more than just about that crime. This also looks into the history of the feather trade – like how women’s fashion almost decimated song birds. It discusses the theory of evolution and how Darwin had a competitor in Alfred Russel Wallace, the bird collector of many of those stolen skins. It talks about the history of fly fishing – which is weirder beyond belief. Such historical forays were interesting. While the poor handling of the crime angered me beyond belief (through no fault of the author), the book kept me interested in topics that, before this book, I would have found boring. Check out me other reviews at https://thecaptainsquartersblog.wordp...

  20. 5 out of 5

    Silvia Moreno-Garcia

    I found the first third of this book hyper-exciting, probably because I love reading about 19th century naturalists. The feather trade for fly-fishermen was interesting. But eventually my attention wandered and frankly I wanted the feather thief of the story to get a boulder dropped on his head. Good book, but in the movie adaptation maybe we can have him eaten by a giant bird.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette

    Rarely am I the outlier for non-fiction reads in this category. I sure am this time. 2.5 stars to be fair, but I cannot round it up. The last section, is overlong and as tedious as trying to explain one person's obsession in a sport or hobby that is for most humans not even a "known" for its process/method. It's told too in a way that made me seem to have to pick the pieces of the whole together myself somehow. Others seem not to feel that aspect at all. I did. And there also is a kind of "eyes" Rarely am I the outlier for non-fiction reads in this category. I sure am this time. 2.5 stars to be fair, but I cannot round it up. The last section, is overlong and as tedious as trying to explain one person's obsession in a sport or hobby that is for most humans not even a "known" for its process/method. It's told too in a way that made me seem to have to pick the pieces of the whole together myself somehow. Others seem not to feel that aspect at all. I did. And there also is a kind of "eyes" rationalization going on here. Maybe I'm wrong. I hate it when any science labeling and care for record is obliterated in just these kinds of ways. So I thought I'd be a good audience for this non-fiction. Not really. Pretentious hobby knowledge gone amok. Sorry and despicable reasoning all around, IMHO, put into a classy frame.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jim Cooper

    Five stars because the history was great - the Victorian feather-mania, the Victorian feather-mania backlash, Walter Rothschild/Tring, the evolution of fly-tying - all of that was excellent and worth the time in the book. I also like Rist's story, and what he did, and the reaction to it in the community, the trial, etc. I felt like the end of the book - the author's hunt for the truth - was unfulfilling and could have been left out. But that's a small knock on a good history book.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    When I chose this book, I thought it was fiction. It is not. It's history. It's a mystery. It's true crime. It's very interesting and opens a world that I had no idea existed. Seems the author acquired the obsession the people in the book already had.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Randal White

    As a fly fisherman, fly tier, and former policeman, I found this book to be an absolute home run! A young "savant", Edwin Rist, had everything going for him. A brilliant flautist, he and his brother (also a savant), discovered the art of tying Atlantic Salmon flies. Throwing themselves into the hobby, they soon discovered the extreme costs and rarity of some of the required feathers. These feathers come from some of the rarest birds in the world, such as the Resplendent Quetzal, the King Bird of As a fly fisherman, fly tier, and former policeman, I found this book to be an absolute home run! A young "savant", Edwin Rist, had everything going for him. A brilliant flautist, he and his brother (also a savant), discovered the art of tying Atlantic Salmon flies. Throwing themselves into the hobby, they soon discovered the extreme costs and rarity of some of the required feathers. These feathers come from some of the rarest birds in the world, such as the Resplendent Quetzal, the King Bird of Paradise, the Flame Bowerbird, and the Blue Chatterer. Due to the rarity of the birds, the world came together and enacted a treaty to protect them, and other rare and endangered species. It became known as the "CITES" treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It's the basis for the laws prohibiting trade in ivory, for example, as well as many other animals and plants. Rather than simply using substitute feathers (which the majority of us make do with), Edwin concocts a scheme to break into the British Natural History Museum. The museum housed a vast collection of the birds that Rist needed feathers from. The bird carcasses were collected over hundreds of years, and were being stored for scientific purposes. To not give the entire book away, Rist burglarizes the museum, and makes away with hundreds of the rare birds. It seems that he has committed the perfect crime, as he gets away with it for quite a while. Eventually, people become suspicious of Rist, as he seems to have an unending suppy of the feathers for sale (the feathers can be sold, if it can be proven that they were obtained before the CITES treaty went into effect). He is arrested, but is given a slap on the wrist and released. Along comes the author. A fascinating man in his own right, Johnson is a modern day Sherlock Holmes. He personifies the word persistent. Through an unending, multi-year investigation, Johnson uncovers much more information. The investigation, and it's revelations, really is quite a fascinating story in itself. Again, I don't want to spoil the book for any readers, so I will stop here! Not only a story of Rist and his exploits, the book covers many other subjects. Early explorers searching for unknown species, the whole phenomenon of "feather fashion", the history of salmon fly tying, and the fly tying community itself. The author melds these subjects into the story seamlessly. The entire book flows along very well. You cannot help but learn a great deal about many, varied subjects, painlessly. You will find yourself at times pulling for Rist, and yet at times disgusted by his greed. You wonder how the author found the willpower to keep going on in his investigation, when he hits so many dead ends. All in all, I highly recommend this book. To sportsmen, to crime buffs, to pyschology students, and to anyone else who loves a good mystery. Thank you to Edelweiss, who provided me a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

  25. 5 out of 5

    vanessa

    This was a heck of a story. I found it fascinating to learn about this world of fly tying and feather collection I had no idea existed. I enjoyed learning about the history of the famous birds and who discovered them as well as who Edwin Rist was and how this heist happened. Learning about this small fly tying community was also super fascinating. There were a couple slower moments, but overall this story kept delivering: after the case is "solved" the author finds even more information. And bes This was a heck of a story. I found it fascinating to learn about this world of fly tying and feather collection I had no idea existed. I enjoyed learning about the history of the famous birds and who discovered them as well as who Edwin Rist was and how this heist happened. Learning about this small fly tying community was also super fascinating. There were a couple slower moments, but overall this story kept delivering: after the case is "solved" the author finds even more information. And best of all, this was great on audio.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Nicki

    What a fascinating book this was! The fact that somebody had the audacity to even consider breaking into the British Natural History Museum and let alone do it, was intriguing enough for me to request this on NetGalley. The author tells an absorbing tale of how he first heard about the incident, and then how he follows the trail to find out how and why the thief did what he did. As well as the story about the theft, the historical research into the feather industry was absolutely fascinating. I lo What a fascinating book this was! The fact that somebody had the audacity to even consider breaking into the British Natural History Museum and let alone do it, was intriguing enough for me to request this on NetGalley. The author tells an absorbing tale of how he first heard about the incident, and then how he follows the trail to find out how and why the thief did what he did. As well as the story about the theft, the historical research into the feather industry was absolutely fascinating. I loved reading about the trends of feathers in the fashion industry, starting with Marie Antoinette and continuing until the Victorian times when people began to discover that birds were becoming extinct for the sake of fashion. The obsession the salmon fly-tying community has with acquiring feathers is quite something as well and unless I’d read this I really wouldn’t believe it. If you’re looking for a true crime story but without murder and gore, then this is definitely the book for you. Thanks so much to NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone for my digital ARC.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Lily Mason

    This story is unexpectedly engaging to the point where at times it feels like fiction. Who would have thought that a conservatory student would pull off the natural history heist of the century, all in the name of a niche hobby? Johnson is a great storyteller and his passion for the subject shines through. The only point where my interest waned was during the chapter on the history of feather use in women's fashion. Other than that, I was riveted from start to finish.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth A

    I listened to the audiobook which was well narrated by MacLeod Andrews, and when I started I thought this was going to be a 5 star read. Alas, it lost steam as it progressed. This true crime tale centers around the heist of about 300 rare bird specimens from the Trind museum, a branch of the British Museum of Natural History. The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, we go back in time to the days of Wallace and Darwin, the heady days of scientific discovery, and the germination o I listened to the audiobook which was well narrated by MacLeod Andrews, and when I started I thought this was going to be a 5 star read. Alas, it lost steam as it progressed. This true crime tale centers around the heist of about 300 rare bird specimens from the Trind museum, a branch of the British Museum of Natural History. The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, we go back in time to the days of Wallace and Darwin, the heady days of scientific discovery, and the germination of the theory of Natural Selection. While I knew most of this already, I thoroughly enjoyed this recap of the British obsession with collecting specimens from near and far. The next section explores the world of fly fishing, and how Edwin Rist gets hooked on this sport. I found this part fascinating, as people and their obsessions are always interesting to learn about. When it occured to people that the animal kingdom was not infinite, laws were passed to protect endangered species, alas, too late for many. These laws though created a demand for rare bird feathers, and where there is demand, someone will find a way to create a supply. Edwin's idea is to plunder the shelves of a Natural History Museum. After all, they have loads of birds simply sitting around doing nothing. How little some people seem to understand how science works. But, greed does indeed make some people blind, and Edwin's act destroys hundreds of years worth of work. He's caught and what happens at trial is interesting. Is there a crime is no one is killed? The final section outlines how the author hears about this heist, and his own obsession with learning what happened to all the stolen birds. This is the part I found least interesting. The book is well written and has a fun narrative nonfiction tone, but I was expecting more of a straight up history, and there is way too much memoir for my tastes. I enjoyed the overall read, and learned things I didn't know much about, but this would have been a more compelling read with less memoir and tighter editing.

  29. 4 out of 5

    SueKich

    Hooked! I know nothing about fish other than my recipe for lime-encrusted cod loin and little more about birds other than that robins and blue-tits are adorable. Nevertheless, I found this book about fly-tying and rare bird feathers absolutely riveting. This is Kirk Wallace Johnson’s account of one of the strangest heists in history. In 2009, a 20-year old American music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Tring’s Natural History Museum in Hertfordshire and stole a suitcase full of rare birds Hooked! I know nothing about fish other than my recipe for lime-encrusted cod loin and little more about birds other than that robins and blue-tits are adorable. Nevertheless, I found this book about fly-tying and rare bird feathers absolutely riveting. This is Kirk Wallace Johnson’s account of one of the strangest heists in history. In 2009, a 20-year old American music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Tring’s Natural History Museum in Hertfordshire and stole a suitcase full of rare birds for their priceless feathers, making his escape on the late-night train into Euston. Did he do it because of his obsession with collecting rare feathers or to profit from their sale? And did he get away with it? Johnson helped in Iraq’s reconstruction after the war, serving as a refugee advocate for the translators who had been working on the USA’s behalf. As he becomes increasingly disillusioned with this work, he hears the story of the unlikely thief and becomes gripped by this bizarre tale. Edwin Rist’s obsession with rare feathers soon becomes Johnson’s obsession with the case - a five year quest during which the author’s disappointment with a greedy world that places ownership above ethics becomes palpable. As one of the fanatic fly-tiers comments: “Where something is scarce, people get creative.”

  30. 4 out of 5

    Whitney

    Summary: an engrossing and obsessive book about a true crime involving stealing hundreds of priceless dead birds. The good: meticulously researched and extremely well written. I could not put this book down and will have a difficult time getting it out of my head. Very intriguing and very informative. This is an area I knew nothing about and found myself continuously looking up people, facts, and other details from this book. Interesting characters, quick plot, an absolutely bizarre crime, and me Summary: an engrossing and obsessive book about a true crime involving stealing hundreds of priceless dead birds. The good: meticulously researched and extremely well written. I could not put this book down and will have a difficult time getting it out of my head. Very intriguing and very informative. This is an area I knew nothing about and found myself continuously looking up people, facts, and other details from this book. Interesting characters, quick plot, an absolutely bizarre crime, and meticulous research all make this book great. The bad: the first 150 pages are very fast paced and filled with background information leading up the verdict of them crime and then changes pace dramatically. The last part of the book were not as intense and a bit slower overall. It also felt like there was no real conclusion. Though that is the case and this is all true, I wish there was some follow up or at least a summary to tie everything together. It seemed to end quite abruptly. Overall: recommend this to all. A totally engrossing and meticulously researched true story of one of the most bizarre crimes I have ever heard of. Loved it.

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