Reviewed by Anne McCallum
A real-life detective story. The author, a journalist who survived the Iraqi War with a bad case of PTSD, finds solace in fly fishing. One day he learns that one of the most promising up-and-coming fly-tiers of the younger generation (and a virtuoso classical flautist to boot) stole a massive number of irreplaceable exotic feathers and skins from a major natural history museum in England. This sounds to him like a story ready made to get his mind off a messy war and its tragic aftermath, and he jumps into it.
The book opens with the crime, but then backs WAY up to the real beginning of the story—the amazing life and collecting expeditions of Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary, who overcame huge personal disasters to become one of the greatest names in biogeography. The next chapter examines the museums that gathered and preserved these kinds of amazing collections for posterity—particularly the Tring Museum of uber-rich Walter Rothchild. Then came the millenary feather craze that almost wiped out the exotic birds themselves before women themselves began the pushback that lead to the legal protections that have become the bulwark against extinction. While wealthy women were sporting exotic feathers on their heads, wealthy men were using them for fly fishing on their estates—an avocation that has today morphed into the cultish fine art of fly-tying.
Enter young Edwin Rist, who, at 22 was so consumed with fly-tying that he was willing to risk his stellar musical career to stage a heist of some of the most gorgeous and irreplaceable Tring specimens to supply his own needs and to sell on secretive online sites.
Guilty or not guilty, your honor? The remainder of the book explores Rist’s motivations, his methods, the discovery and solving of the crime, the plea, his co-conspirators, and the frustrating search for what remains of the stolen goods. Along the way the author meets one angry scientist, Dr. Richard Plum, who happens “to be looking for a journalist willing to shine a light on a hobby that he wanted to stigmatize into oblivion.” (188).
Those of us in the Early Birds Book Club all agreed we loved the book! We learned new and fascinating things in every chapter. The last chapters are less enjoyable but no less important as we learn of the limits of current legal efforts to thwart such crimes (unless the crime involves rhino horn or ivory!)
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