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<anon I1="BLANK" I2="BLANK">PROLOGUE By the time Edwin Rist stepped off the train onto the platform at Tring, forty miles north of London, it was already quite late. The residents of the sleepy town had finished their suppers; the little ones were in bed. As he began the long walk into town, the Midland line glided off into darkness. A few hours earlier Edwin had performed in the Royal Academy of Music's "London Soundscapes," a celebration of Hayden, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Before the concert, he'd packed a pair of latex gloves, a miniature LED flashlight, a wire cutter, and a diamond-blade glass cutter in a large rolling suitcase, and stowed it in his concert hall locker. He bore a passing resemblance to a lanky Pete Townshend: intense eyes, prominent nose, and a mop of hair, although instead of shredding a Fender, Edwin played the flute. There was a new moon that evening, making the already-gloomy stretch of road even darker. For nearly an hour, he dragged his suit- case through the mud and gravel skirting the road, under gnarly old trees strangled with ivy. Turlhanger's Wood slept to the north, Chestnut Wood to the south, fallow fields and the occasional copse in between. A car blasted by, its headlights blinding. Adrenaline coursing, he knew he was getting close. The entrance to the market town of Tring is guarded by a sixteenth-century pub called the Robin Hood. A few roads beyond, nestled between the old Tring Brewery and an HSBC branch, lies the entrance to Public Footpath 37. Known to locals as Bank Alley, the footpath isn't more than eight feet wide and is framed by seven-foot-high brick walls. Edwin slipped into the alley, into total darkness. He groped his way along until he was standing directly behind the building he'd spent months casing. All that separated him from it was the wall. Capped with three rusted strands of barbed wire, it might have thwarted his plans were it not for the wire cutter. After clearing an opening, he lifted the suitcase to the ledge, hoisted himself up, and glanced anxiously about. No sign of the guard. There was a space of several feet between his perch on the wall and the building's nearest window, forming a small ravine. If he fell, he could injure himself--or worse, make a clamor that would summon security. But he'd known this part wouldn't be easy. Crouched on top of the wall, he reached toward the window with the glass cutter and began to grind it along the pane. Cutting glass was harder than he had anticipated, though, and as he struggled to carve an opening, the glass cutter slipped from his hand and fell into the ravine. His mind raced. Was this a sign? He was think- ing about bailing on the whole crazy scheme when that voice, the one that had urged him onward these past months, shouted Wait a minute! You can't give up now. You've come all this way! He crawled back down and picked up a rock. Steadying himself atop the wall, he peered around in search of guards before bashing the window out, wedging his suitcase through the shard-strewn opening, and climbing into the British Natural History Museum. Unaware that he had just tripped an alarm in the security guard's office, Edwin pulled out the LED light, which cast a faint glow in front of him as he made his way down the hallways toward the vault, just as he'd rehearsed in his mind. He wheeled his suitcase quietly through corridor after corridor, drawing ever closer to the most beautiful things he had ever seen. If he pulled this off, they would bring him fame, wealth, and prestige. They would solve his problems. He deserved them. He entered the vault, its hundreds of large white steel cabinets standing in rows like sentries, and got to work. He pulled out the first drawer, catching a waft of mothballs. Quivering beneath his fingertips were a dozen Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, gathered by natural- ists and biologists over hundreds of years from the forests and jungles of South America and fastidiously preserved by generations of curators for the benefit of future research. Their coppery-orange feathers glimmered despite the faint light. Each bird, maybe a foot and a half from beak to tail, lay on its back in funerary repose, eye sockets filled with cotton, feet folded close against the body. Tied around their legs were biodata labels: faded, handwritten records of the date, altitude, latitude, and longitude of their capture, along with other vital details. He unzipped the suitcase and began filling it with the birds, emptying one drawer after another. The occidentalis subspecies that he snatched by the handful had been gathered a century earlier from the Quindío Andes region of western Colombia. He didn't know exactly how many he'd be able to fit into his suitcase, but he managed forty-seven of the museum's forty-eight male specimens before wheeling his bag on to the next cabinet. Down in the security office, the guard was fixated on a small television screen. Engrossed in a soccer match, he hadn't yet noticed the alarm indicator blinking on a nearby panel. Edwin opened the next cabinet to reveal dozens of Resplendent Quetzal skins gathered in the 1880s from the Chiriquí cloud forests of western Panama, a species now threatened by widespread deforestation and protected by international treaties. At nearly four feet in length, the birds were particularly difficult to stuff into his suitcase, but he maneuvered thirty-nine of them inside by gently curling their sweeping tails into tight coils. Moving down the corridor, he swung open the doors of another cabinet, this one housing species of the Cotinga birds of South and Central America. He swiped fourteen one-hundred-year-old skins of the Lovely Cotinga, a small turquoise bird with a reddish-purple breast endemic to Central America, before relieving the museum of thirty-seven specimens of the Purple-breasted Cotinga, twenty-one skins of the Spangled Cotinga, and another ten skins of the endangered Banded Cotinga, of which as few as 250 mature individuals are estimated to be alive today. The Galápagos island finches and mockingbirds gathered by Charles Darwin in 1835 during the voyage of the HMS Beagle-- which had been instrumental in developing his theory of evolution through natural selection--were resting in nearby drawers. Among the museum's most valuable holdings were skeletons and skins of extinct birds, including the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon, along with an elephant-folio edition of John James Audubon's The Birds of America . Overall, the museum houses one of the world's largest collection of ornithological specimens: 750,000 bird skins, 15,000 skeletons, 17,000 birds preserved in spirit, 4,000 nests, and 400,000 sets of eggs, gathered over the centuries from the world's most remote forests, mountainsides, jungles, and swamps. But Edwin hadn't broken into the museum for a drab-colored finch. He had lost track of how long he'd been in the vault when he finally wheeled his suitcase to a stop before a large cabinet. A small plaque indicated its contents: paradisaeidae. Thirty-seven King Birds of Paradise, swiped in seconds. Twenty-four Magnificent Rifle-birds. Twelve Superb Birds of Paradise. Four Blue Birds of Paradise. Seventeen Flame Bowerbirds. These flawless specimens, gathered against almost impossible odds from virgin forests of New Guinea and the Malay Archipelago 150 years earlier, went into Edwin's bag, their tags bearing the name of a self-taught naturalist whose breakthrough had given Darwin the scare of his life: a. r. wallace. The guard glanced at the CCTV feed, an array of shots of the parking lot and the museum campus. He began his round, pacing the hallways, checking the doors, scanning for anything awry Edwin had long since lost count of the number of birds that passed through his hands. He had originally planned to choose only the best of each species, but in the excitement of the plunder, he grabbed and stuffed until his suitcase could hold no more. The guard stepped outside to begin a perimeter check, glancing up at the windows and beaming his flashlight on the section abutting the brick wall of Bank Alley. Edwin stood before the broken window, now framed with shards of glass. So far everything had gone according to plan, with the exception of the missing glass cutter. All that remained was to climb back out of the window without slicing himself open, and melt into the anonymity of the street. Excerpted from The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.</anon>
Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
On June 24, 2009, a break in occurred at the British Natural History Museum at Tring. Nothing of value seemed to be missing, but several months later, the museum discovered that hundreds of rare birds, some of them collected by Darwin competitor Alfred Russell Wallace, had been stolen by fishing-lure aficionados. The author, a fly fisherman himself, stumbled on this story and found himself tumbling down a rabbit hole of obsessed Victorian fly-tiers, who need the feathers of now-endangered or extinct bird species to replicate the artistic lures created decades ago. The feathers themselves are worth a small fortune, and while the thief, American Edwin Rist, was captured, many of the birds' skins remained missing. Johnson took up the search within the secretive brotherhood of fly-tiers, tracking down new leads and interviewing wary or openly hostile members. The result is a mind-blowing account of a modern subculture and a riveting historical tour of the feather trade from the 1800s to the present. The resolution, however, is frustrating and demonstrates both the importance and difficulty of preserving our natural history. -VERDICT A different kind of detective tale that will appeal to lovers of natural history and criminal caper stories. [See Prepub Alert, 10/29/17.]--Deirdre Bray Root, formerly with MidPointe Lib. Syst., OH © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal) makes his true-crime debut with this enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime. In 2009, Edwin Rist, an American student at London's Royal Academy of Music, stole 299 rare and scientifically significant bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, England, plucked their feathers, and sold them for top dollar to men who shared his obsession with the Victorian art of salmon-fly tying. Johnson explores the expensive and exotic hobby of salmon-fly tying that emerged in the 19th century and uses that context to frame Rist's story, including his trial. Rist did not serve jail time after his lawyers successfully argued that Asperger's syndrome was to blame for his crime. In the book's final section, Johnson goes deep into the exotic bird and feather trade and concludes that though obsession and greed know no bounds, they certainly make for a fascinating tale. The result is a page-turner that will likely appeal to science, history, and true crime readers. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* In the middle of the eighteenth century, naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace collected hundreds of specimens of birds in pursuit of proof of his theory of natural selection. Later, many of those specimens made their way to the natural-history museum in the town of Tring, England. In 2009, Edwin Rist, a young American flautist and expert in the art of fly tying, broke into the museum and made off with hundreds of rare bird specimens, including many collected by Wallace himself, which Rist intended to sell to fellow fly-tying enthusiasts. He was eventually apprehended, and a number of the stolen specimens were recovered, but a mystery lingered: What happened to the rest of the specimens? 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.--Pitt, David Copyright 2018 Booklist
Kirkus Book Review
A captivating tale of beautiful, rare, priceless, and stolen feathers.Journalist Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind, 2013) was fly-fishing in a New Mexico stream when he first heard about the "feather thief" from his guide. The author became obsessed with the story of Edwin Rist, a young American flautist and expert tier of salmon flies, who, after performing at a June 2009 London concert, broke into the nearby British Natural History Museum at Tring to steal 299 rare bird skins, including 37 of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace's "beloved" Birds of Paradise. Johnson dove headfirst into a five-year journey "deep into the feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, cokeheads and big game hunters, ex-detectives and shady dentists." Everything the author touches in this thoroughly engaging true-crime tale turns to storytelling gold. These intriguing tales include that of Darwin rival Wallace's extreme hardships trying to gather rare birds from around the world and losing many of them in a sinking ship; the incredibly wealthy Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild's museum at Tring, which his father built for him when he was 29 to house his extensive collection of animals and birds, alive and dead; and the sad history of 19th-century women demanding the most exotic birds for their fashionable hats, which resulted in hundreds of millions of birds being killed. Throughout, Johnson's flair for telling an engrossing story is, like the beautiful birds he describes, exquisite. Furthermore, like an accomplished crime reporter, the author recounts the story of how Rist was located and arrested by a local, female detective nearly 15 months after the break-in; the trial, which features an unexpected twist; and the fate of much of his booty.A superb tale about obsession, nature, and man's "unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost." Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.