The Feather Thief

Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
Narrated by: MacLeod Andrews
Length: 8 hrs and 4 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (1,491 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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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

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!!!

21 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A good author can write about anything.

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

11 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Great telling of an absolutely BONKERS event

The story told in this book is absolutely BONKERS. A salmon fly tying flute prodigy breaks into a museum to steal feathers collected by a famous naturalist to sell so he can buy a new flute. You can't make this stuff up. The story is engaging already and Johnson paints a vivid picture of the events of the heist, the thief (Edwin Rist), and community surround it. I didn't know anything (or frankly have any interest in) fly tying before reading this book, but its actually really fascinating with a fascinating history. Johnson's description of the heist and its aftermath is very compelling and so is his final interview with Edwin (who is absolutely THE WORST). I listened to this book on a long road trip with my dad and we both (a 30 year old woman and a 67 year old man) really enjoyed it and have recommended it to others. If you enjoyed "the Orchid Thief" you'll enjoy this.

6 people found this helpful

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best book of 2018

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

5 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
  • HT
  • 11-04-18

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.

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

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.

8 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Fantastic Story, Obscure Topics

I loved the subjects covered within this book--whole societies of people focused around a shared, often obsessively consuming hobby. the crime itself seems almost an invention, but it is SUCH a good, well-researched (very very well!) book and even though it is nonfiction, the surprises are enthralling. The narrator does an excellent job of affecting the moods and personalities of all the individuals in the book (there are plenty!!!) but I bristled a bit at his unfamiliarity with some words' correct pronunciations. for me, that is almost physically painful to hear, and I think if one is pursuing a career of any sort in narration, one really ought to become more familiar with pronunciation. still, it was a great enough book that those were fleeting distractions (there were five or six!).

3 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

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.

9 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Top of my list!

Not only is this a compelling true story with all the elements of a thriller/mystery, but it is read by one of the very best narrators in the biz!

2 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

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!

2 people found this helpful