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The Feather Thief

Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
Written by: Kirk Wallace Johnson
Narrated by: MacLeod Andrews
Length: 8 hrs and 4 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (13 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

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 fans 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, 20-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.

©2018 Kirk Wallace Johnson (P)2018 Penguin Audio

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Flights of Fancy

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.

#Audible1

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Sylvia
  • Valdosta, GA
  • 2018-04-28

Unusual and true natural history mystery!

This is a fascinating book that not only explains about the particular theft of feathers and bird skins, but also about the function of museums and other institutions keeping actual collections of these and why people would want to steal these things. As I said, not just birds but also things like elephant tusks and turtles and all types of animals. The reason I gave the story only four stars is because the detailed theft story began but then diverged off into speaking about all these other topics marginally related to the actual feather theft. Once it got back to the actual feather theft, I was a little confused about who was who and the wheres and whens and so on. But I eventually got back on to the gist of things. Although I have a degree in biology and have both used and contributed to various collections myself, of reptiles/amphibians, not birds, I did not know a good number of things covered by this story. If you have an interest in biology or natural history or ecology or conservation or museums or even just history, I think you would enjoy this audiobook because it is rather unique and presents facts and stories that you may never have heard and relates them together in a way you may not have been aware that they relate. So I have spoken this into my phone rather than typed it and I hope that it makes sense to you. I enjoyed this audiobook. P. S. If you are interested in flyfishing or fly tying, you would probably really, really get into this book!!!

13 of 13 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 2018-05-04

A good author can write about anything.

Who would have thought there would be drama in fly tying! Highly recommend, if a bit obscure.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Morgan
  • 2018-05-03

Surprisingly Riveting

I heard about this book on an NPR interview. Surprisingly riveting. the author takes subject matter that is relatively obscure and turns it in to truly interesting story.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • C Johnson
  • 2018-10-26

best book of 2018

loved this book, it has everything: history, true crime, great writing and captivating tale. buying it for friends and family.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Bonny
  • 2018-05-08

Weird, fascinating, & engrossing story!

I've fished, tried to cast with my son's fly-fishing rod, and admired some of the flies that he has tied, but I never imagined I could be so captivated by the story of a young man so obsessed with Victorian salmon-fly tying that he would resort to stealing hundreds of rare and exotic bird feathers and skins from the Tring Natural History Museum.

Truth really is stranger than fiction in The Feather Thief, and Kirk Johnson has written this weirdly fascinating story so well that I couldn't help but become immersed in it. He presents his research so the reader can understand the background and development of salmon-fly tying as an elite and expensive hobby in the 19th century. He also writes about Darwin's rival Alfred Russel Wallace and his quest to gather rare birds for scientific study and 19th century women demanding exotic birds and feather for their hats. On the surface, The Feather Thief is about exactly what its title states, but it's also about protecting endangered species and those who exploit those species for pleasure and money.

The author says that after he heard about the feather thief from a fly-fishing guide in New Mexico, “I became obsessed with the crime within moments. The more I found out, the greater the mystery grew, and my own compulsion to solve it.” I felt the same way about this engrossing book.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • HT
  • 2018-11-04

Parts Were Interesting

The parts about fly tying I found very interesting to learn about and the lengths people go to in getting feathers to recreate lures from the Victorian era. I kind of felt that the author involved himself a little too much into the story and that, to me, detracted from what it was about.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Moviegoer
  • Charleston, SC
  • 2018-10-15

Plucked Feathers

I was really looking forward to this book after hearing it discussed on NPR. I had it ready to play when I set off on trip out of town. Unfortunately I did not make it very far in the book as the reader’s narration is so annoying. He is trying to add too much emphasis and excitement. It is like something for Saturday morning kids documentary. Very unfortunate. I have spoken with friends who have read the text version and absolutely loved it. If you want to listen, I would suggest pulling up the episode on fresh air.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 2018-07-19

Highly recommend! A must read!

An engaging and thought provoking “page turner”. Wonderfully written true crime drama that takes you through the annals of history to present day. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Amazon Customer
  • Peoria, AZ
  • 2019-03-07

Great Fly Thing Book

Being a past fly fisher/tyer, this is a very interesting and absorbing book. At the end it smacked a little of chasing windmills as the author believed he could get the vintage tiers to admit to having and giving up birds/feathers.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 2019-03-06

One of the best books in a while

This is one of the best books I've listened to on Audible. While the story is about one particular robbery, it follows several centuries of natural history. The narrative was very engaging, and the writer provided a balance of personal introspection and historical fact. The only thing that felt disappointing was the ending...however, that has more to do with the fact that in real life we do not have all the answers than with any fault on the storyteller's part. Overall, I would highly recommend this book.