Book Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief
Kirk Wallace Johnson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In 2009, Edwin Rist, a college student and flautist for London’s Royal Academy of Music, broke into the British Natural History Tring Museum and stole 299 bird skins and feathers from sixteen different rare species, valued at $1 million. Why? He was obsessed with fly-tying, a cultish hobby in which people (not fishermen) from around the world sought rare and colorful feathers to create elaborate fishing lures. These feathers weren’t just rare, they were from protected and some extinct species that had been collected by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who had carefully preserved and labeled a massive number of birds. Wallace’s expeditions and collections led to the theory of biogeography, a way of understanding the geographic distribution of species, and his samples have been used in many important scientific studies about changes in the environment over hundreds of years.

Once Rist got his haul back to his apartment, he began plucking the feathers, putting them in baggies and selling them on eBay so that he could buy a new flute. A year and a half later, he was arrested and immediately confessed. Rist was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and received a suspended sentence. He graduated, changed his name and moved to Germany. While some of the bird skins were recovered intact, others had been plucked and sold to fly-tiers all over the world.

The Feather Thief is the story of the author’s own obsession with the crime, his desire to understand Rist’s motives and recover the missing bird skins. To give perspective, Johnson first describes the theft and then Wallace’s expeditions. He also writes about the period of time following Wallace’s return, beginning in the 1860s, when feathers became the craze in women’s fashion. Their high demand endangered many bird species, leading to bans on poaching and the feather trade. He also explains the art of fly-tying, the secretive online network of tiers and how they communicate on various forums.

After Johnson’s numerous requests, Rist agreed to an interview and it is here where readers get a look at the person who committed this unusual theft. Was the crime premeditated? Was the Asperger’s diagnosis valid or did Rist fake the syndrome to get the diagnosis? Did someone help him with the heist? Where are the missing feathers?

Johnson writes an interesting story about a strange crime and the quirkiness of an offshoot of the fly-tying hobby. Although I knew about fly-fishing, I’d never heard of fly-tiers who don’t fish, who spend crazy amounts of time and money seeking rare feathers to create lures that they keep for their own collections.

I enjoyed The Feather Thief and recommend it to readers who like true crime stories and character studies.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

    1. Not sure, especially if he faked it – that’s terrible! But that’s my opinon – it’s never been challenged and the family apparently had the case removed from the internet. I recently learned that you can do that in Europe due to the “right to be forgotten” law.

  1. Although the cover is catchy and the daring heist sends the plot into orbit, judging from the blurb, I believe I like The Book Thief better. Thanks for always keeping your readers “in the know” here, Barbara.

  2. I’d never heard of fly-tiers either, Barb. This does sound like a very quirky crime and interesting story. The aspect of “obsession” on the part of Rist, fly-tiers, and the author is a fascinating topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the read. 🙂

  3. Oh wow, this sounds totally weird and interesting! Who would ever know that people are that obsessed with fly-tying (or that it’s even a thing)? I haven’t been much in the mood for non-fiction lately, but I’ll add this to my TBR for when I am. Great review!

    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for stopping by – yes it was totally weird, but very readable. I know what you mean about nonfiction, yet here I am reading another one – Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks – it’s a ridiculous 999 pages!!

    1. Hello there Coastal Crone! Thanks for the visit. I’m glad you also enjoyed the book. Sounds like we had the same experience in reading it. I knew fly fishermen used fancy lures, but that was a bout it.

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