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The Feather Thief (cover)

Publisher: Hutchinson, London

Publication Year: 2018

Binding: Hardback

Page Count: 297

ISBN Number: 9781101981610

Price: £ 20.00

The Feather Thief

Before reading this book, not one of us who met to discuss it had any idea whatsoever about the very serious and skilful art of salmon fly-tying, especially when taken to the lengths described in this narrative. Fly-tying, yes maybe - ordinary ones for actually catching fish - but not created to the level we get to see here, where flies are made from the most beautiful feathers, coveted and preserved beyond comprehension, never to go near a drop of water and many, it seems, made by men who haven’t got a clue how to catch a fish.

Most of us had certainly heard of the events that took place in Tring and the aftermath of the discovery that specimens were missing from the museum, but this book is a revelation in the exposure of an ‘underworld’ of obsession, the involvement in which prompted Edwin Rist to act as he did. All for some feathers? It seemed incomprehensible. We needed to find out more.

All of us without exception found the first part, maybe even the first half, of the book by far the most interesting. It begins with a prologue which quite baldly describes how the shadowy figure of Rist broke into the Museum and filled a suitcase with hundreds of specimens ('swiped in seconds'), seemingly without giving a thought as to why they were there, where they came from or how they had got there. He did have some idea what he was looking for, but simply grabbed them and stuffed them in the case -'“these flawless specimens, gathered against almost impossible odds', mostly by A.R. Wallace and complete with tags bearing that name.

The author then goes back in time, setting the historical background, starting with the character of Alfred Russell Wallace. He describes the zoologist’s exploratory and often disastrous travels to far-flung continents and islands to garner precious specimens, returning them to England to be catalogued and studied. This historical narrative moves from the initial wonder at the very existence of these brilliantly coloured exotic birds, many of which went to collectors such as Lionel Rothschild in Tring, to the evolutionary theories of Wallace and Darwin (all tangled with religious beliefs about creation), then inevitably to the realisation that money was to be made by capturing and selling exotically-feathered birds to the greedy fashion industry, and so on to the Victorians with their hats and the new art of fly-tying. It touches most relevantly on Wallace’s dawning concern that such covetousness by collectors was in danger of 'unstocking' the world and that 'all living things were not made for man', despite the initial well-intentioned scientific intent of zoologists. This background is very well researched and written, and it is essential to know, because it gives the reader an idea of the real value of the feathers, and also an understanding of how and why the obsession with fly-tying came about.

The pointed contrast between the attitudes of Wallace in carefully selecting, collecting and cataloguing the specimens and that of Edwin Rist in his cavalier gathering of them for his own purposes is subtly woven into the story.

The book moves on to tell us of the author’s background and how he became more and more interested in the incident, well after it all took place, seeking determinedly to get to the bottom of where all the feathers had gone. It becomes a personal quest. We were interested to find out about Rist himself, to get a feeling for where he had come from and what had motivated this seemingly unassuming American music student. The interview the author conducted with him was enlightening, and the question marks hanging over the diagnosis of Asperger’s as the reason for his behaviour leaves one wondering. It’s never entirely clear what is true and what is not. How carefully did he plan the theft, and was his only aim really just to buy a new flute, as he said? The reader is left doubting his ignorance of the effect his actions would have.

But we all agreed that as the author investigates further, and digs deeper into the fly-tying community, forums, other characters and eBay dealings, we became a little weary of detail. Some felt he got so engrossed in his own research that the exhaustive detail may lose his readers. We were interested in the descriptions of the actual heist, the police investigations and the consequences, but by the time we neared the end of the book, all felt a distinct lack of interest in the continued but fruitless search for the feathers and were not surprised that there were loose ends. We did understand the sad truth that without the tags, the specimens were no longer of scientific use and from that point of view it didn’t really matter whether they were found or not. And one thing is certain - throughout the investigations, the lack of regard by the fly-tying community for CITES and the overlooking of the illegality of trade in wildlife is astounding.

In general, the writing was thought to be of a journalistic style with 'americanisms' which some found jarred a little, though others were quite happy with this and could overlook any shortcomings. Some found it a patchy read, and the word-craft and writing style didn’t really work for another. But, those small quibbles aside, we all found it most informative and enjoyable. The thorough research was definitely its main strength, with the copiously annotated text adding much to our knowledge.

We would most definitely recommend that anyone without an inkling of these events and their background should read this and be likewise astounded!

Book reviewed by BTO Book Group

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