Charles Rangeley-Wilson reviews Kirk Wallace Johnson’s ‘The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century’ (hardback, 320 pages), published by Hutchinson and out now.
The bizarre crime at the heart of this gripping book The Feather Thief is as surprising at it is baffling. In June 2009 Edwin Rist, a young American studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, broke into an outpost of the Natural History Museum at Tring, having travelled there by train with an empty suitcase, and stole from under the noses of the rather sleepy security staff 299 skins of rare tropical birds that had been collected by the famous naturalist Alfred Wallace, a colleague of Charles Darwin.
The staff noticed the break-in, but without knowing what the thief had targeted or where to look, they did not notice that anything was missing for quite some time – by which point Rist had enjoyed a head start in his plans to sell packets of the feathers and skins on eBay to fellow addicts. That’s if he had much of a plan to start with. Whether Rist was guilty of a cynical, pre-meditated crime or the victim of his own obsession is a large part of the mystery Kirk Wallace Johnson seeks to unlock in his natural-history detective tale.
Rist was certainly feeding an addiction as much as he became a dealer. The drug being fly-tying. Not the functional art of tying flies that you might actually catch fish with, but the abstracted art of tying Victorianesque salmon flies as an end in itself, to indulge in and savour their exotic beauty.
To the small and somewhat secretive band of devotees who shared Rist’s vice, the aim is either to invent original concoctions, or to follow the precise recipes of doyens like George Kelson – author of the seminal 1895 book The Salmon Fly – but always to tie with an eye to the perfection of form, proportion…and feather.
The Victorian era seems to have abounded with bonkers hobbyists and sportsmen whose inclination to systemise the natural world was often taken to ornate extremes. William Blacker, who started the salmon-fly craze in 1842 with his book, the Art of Fly-Making, held that certain patterns would fish in certain places, but only if they contained the specific hues of blue, claret, olive or purple that belonged to specific birds: the Resplendent Quetzal, the Blue Chatterer, the Indian Crow or various Birds of Paradise.
Kelson, claiming the hobby worthy of doctors, lawyers, poets, painters and philosophers, sent his disciples off in search of such exotic ephemera as fur – from silver monkeys or from the Arctic – silk from the Orient, and so on. That was before he got to the feathers. His recipes had lofty, evocative names – The Champion, Britannia, The Black Ranger – precise formulas and prescriptive applications: such and such a fly was notably effective for a salmon resting beside a rock, etc.
All of which is utter crap, of course: a salmon that wants to take a fly will take a chocolate wrapper on a hook. But that wasn’t the point, not in 1895 and not now. The point is obsession. An obsession that is on the face of it quite harmless – it’s only silly men and feathers, after all – but which has its darker side.
When Blacker and Kelson kicked off the craze there was already a busy trade in exotic feathers in the women’s fashion industry. Fly-tying opportunistically skimmed the surface of a pre-existent wholesale global slaughter, the details of which beggar belief: at the height of the craze one British dealer sold two million bird skins in a single year. Hats were the most common graveyard, but one merchant at the time marketed a shawl made from eight thousand humming-bird skins! So dismal was the apocalypse it drove the extinction of several species and ultimately gave birth to organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Audubon Society, as well important conservation laws such the Importation of Plumage Prohibition Act.
Scroll forward a hundred years or so and many of the birds Kelson and Blacker used in their original recipes are highly protected. Some are on the verge of extinction. Trading in their feathers, unless those feathers verifiably come from some antique source, is illegal. Most of the species are listed by CITES. To the obsessed aficionados of Kelsonesque fly-tying this makes the real feathers, skins or capes – legal or illegal – rare and extremely valuable. Substitute, dyed feathers just aren’t the same. Rist’s heist was worth a fortune and Johnson’s gumshoe searching takes you to the edges (they never quite let him in) of a protective and conspiratorially silent underworld of fly-tying.
The police busted Rist in the end. He’d not made much effort to cover his tracks: the fly-tying community were disconcertingly willing to buy feathers whose provenance was explained away with the scantest of details and clearly there lurked a collective suspicion as to how this music student, who was ‘only raising funds to buy a flute’, had lucked into a treasure trove of exotic birds. A chance remark led the coppers to their man and Rist confessed immediately.
With an admission of guilt, there was no trial, only sentencing. The defence pleaded that Edwin Rist had Asperger’s syndrome and leaning on the precedent of another similar, but more shocking case, the judge gave Rist a 12-month suspended sentence.
Of the 299 skins taken, the police found 174 in Rist’s flat, 102 of which had their labels (the information that was essential to their scientific value) still attached.19 were later returned to the museum by tyers who had bought them. That left 106 skins unaccounted for. Where had they gone?
Kirk Wallace Johnson was fishing a river in New Mexico when his guide told him about the heist. Burned out by his work for The List Project – assisting and sheltering Iraqi refugees – Johnson became distractedly gripped by his own feathery obsession: the story of the crime, how and why Rist had escaped prison and what had happened to all those missing birds: “I don’t know if it was Edwin’s Victorian sounding name, the sheer weirdness of the story or the fact that I was in desperate need of a new direction in life, but I became obsessed with the crime within moments.”
The result, in literary form, is a gripping natural-history detective story. Was Rist a cunning con-artist who more or less got away with the perfect, albeit clumsy crime? Or was he hopelessly addicted to feathers, to his hobby, and to his status as a young fly-tying protégé without the economic means to realise his dreams and potential?
Johnson leads the reader through the possibilities and almost lets us decide. My only, minor gripe with the book is that Johnson’s bias is writ too large – as if the polar choice of con-man versus naif is the thing that gives the story narrative petrol – while his research into Asperger’s is shallow. Several times he crassly describes Asperger’s as a ‘disorder’ while his own analysis of Rist seems to hinge on eye contact and athleticism of thought – as if everyone correctly diagnosed with Asperger’s is socially awkward and intellectually disabled. Among all the impressive research that Johnson undertook, I wish he had found time to read NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman and to reflect on the fact that his very own obsessional drive and singularity of purpose would be on a list of attributes, qualities even, of what is a spectrum condition and not a disorder.
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