In 2009, a flautist robbed the British Museum of Natural History's Tring museum, stealing hundreds of historic bird specimens he sold on the black market for rare feathers among the practitioners of salmon fly-tying. This true-crime novel investigates the heist, the fly-tying underworld, and the efforts by a rival of Charles Darwin to preserve rare birdskins for posterity.
Why on earth would a talented musician risk a prison term by stealing a bunch of bird skins? A fascinating new book provides the answer while exploring the bold derring-do of naturalists, the batty heights of Anglo-American eccentricity, and the high price of our never-ending attraction to beauty in nature ... one of the most peculiar and memorable true-crime books you're ever likely to read ... Johnson is an intrepid journalist who doesn't mind venturing into the arcane world of, say, a Victorian salmon-fly-tying symposium held at a DoubleTree in New Jersey. He also has a fine knack for uncovering details that reveal, captivate, and disturb.
The author’s relentless pursuit of a solution to that mystery not only breaks down the crime itself but also follows the eccentric histories of 'feather fever'—the Victorian fad that turned bird feathers into the height of fashion accessories—and fly tying (which dates back at least to the Macedonians of the third century AD). Way more interesting than you’d think a book about a guy who stole some dead birds could possibly be, this is a remarkably compelling story of obsession and history and a man who so loved his art that he would break the law for it.
So it goes: an unending (it seems) struggle, Mr. Johnson writes, between 'humans bound across centuries by the faith-based belief that these birds were worth preserving' and 'centuries of men and women who looted the skies and forests for wealth and status.' Johnson has written a fascinating book about that struggle—the kind of intelligent reported account that alerts us to a threat and that, one hopes, will never itself be endangered.