Book Review: The Feather Thief

This strange but true tale about an obsessive fly tyer who steals precious specimens from the UK Musuem of Natural History is a gripping story

Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief is difficult to categorize. Part autobiography, part ornithology, part true crime (minus the bodies) … and with fly fishing and fly tying at its core.

While it’s an unusual mix, it really works.

Normally when reviewing crime writing, it’s important to avoid spoilers. But with The Feather Thief (you can buy the book here), the basic facts are known.

An obsessive young fly tyer called Edwin Rist stole priceless rare bird specimens from Britain’s Natural History Museum and was ultimately caught, but not before selling off feathers from some of the birds to unscrupulous fly tyers desperate for illicit feathers to create their classic dressed salmon flies.

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The real interest in the book, as it often is in real life, is in the nuances. What motivates someone to take these risks? How do they explain themselves? And what about those who bought the feathers? Is there a hidden subculture of illegality in fly tying?

All these questions and more are answered very capably by Wallace Johnson, an aid worked turned writer who took up fly fishing later in life.

The Feather Thief allows him to display a lot of storytelling and investigative craft as he delves into the mystery of the missing birds – which were specimens gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution in parallel to his more famous compatriot, Charles Darwin.

The mania for feathers from exotic birds such as Bird of Paradise, Quetzal and Cotinga began in the late 1800s when elaborate hats came into fashion and resulted in these species being hunted to near extinction.

Bird Specimens from the Natural History Museum
Bird Specimens from the Natural History Museum

As a result, new feathers are impossible to get (legally anyway), and the finite supplies available legitimately to fly tyers have now been exhausted.

The writer retraces the case from the scene of Rist’s crime and examines the forces that led a hitherto cleanskin to commit such a brazen and selfish theft.

There’s also a lively account of the police investigation and what led to Rist’s apprehension.

The book follow Rist’s trial and how he escapes meaningful punishment on a dubious technicality.

It all amounts to a compelling tale for both fly fishers and tyers and general readers.

Kirk Wallace Johnson

Wallace Johnson really hits his story telling straps when he strives to trace the movement of the feathers lifted from these magnificent birds and despatched into a shadowy and secretive world of reclusive tyers trading online in these illicit plumes.

His twin aims are to try to recover as many specimens as possible and secure an interview with Rist to hear his own account.

It’s a quest that takes him from online feather trading forums to fly tying conventions and on to Europe on the trail of Rist and his contacts.

It doesn’t end in a very satisfactory way – certainly for Wallace Johnson, and for readers, some reviewers have noted.

An example of a dressed salmon fly

I don’t entirely agree with them. The lack of genuine remorse from Rist and other fly tyers involved, the failure of online auction platforms to take any meaningful action and the apathy of authorities to recovering the specimens are frustrating, but part of real life.

And while The Feather Thief lacks the neat, “tie it all up in a bow” ending of a crime novel, it remains a gripping account of a fascinating crime that asks some broader questions about our society.

The Hatch Mag review of the book makes the point that highlighting the lack of any genuine accountability in the ending may very well be Wallace-Johnson’s point. Before he wrote the book, he spent years of his life on a Quioxitic push to get refugee status for Iraqi and Aghan translators and other works resettled in the US to prevent them being murdered for their  work with foreign forces. 

Turning to fly fishing to escape the trauma of this venture, he stumbles across the Rist story by chance after glimpsing a Victorian salmon fly in a guide’s fly box.

From this moment of fortune, he’s managed to weave a tale that’s every bit as complicated, elaborate and compelling as these flies themselves.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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