Maybe they’re too obscure. Maybe they’re too poorly-documented. Or maybe they’re too embarrassing, reflecting shamefully on the victors who, as the saying goes, write the history.
The events documented in David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” (Doubleday, $28.95) have hints of the first two categories, but it is that third one into which it most thoroughly falls. The book is a deep dive into a largely-forgotten stretch of the early 1920s when the native people of one particular Oklahoma were faced with an unknown danger both relentless and cunning.
In the 1920s – the age of bootleggers and robber barons and tycoons galore – the wealthiest people per capita in the entire world were the members of the Osage Native American tribe. Due to the discovery of vast oil reserves beneath the surface of their reservation – lands to which they were moved years earlier by the United States government – the Osage people became wildly rich. Theirs was a life of luxury, of electric lights and limousines and mansions in the hills.
And then the murders began.
The Osage began to be killed off. Some were shot, others were poisoned, but all of them were Osage – and all of them carried significant connection to the tribe’s oil wealth. Many of the dead were related to one woman – Mollie Burkhart; it was almost as if her family was being targeted specifically.
It was the Wild West, with plenty of desperate people willing to do anything to fill their pockets with a chunk of that Osage oil money – people who were operating on both sides of the law. Sure, there were outlaws, but there were plenty of supposedly upstanding citizens who were willing to look the other way if it fattened their wallets. With so much corruption – and an unpleasant tendency for those investigating the deaths to themselves turn up dead – it seemed impossible that these murders could ever be solved.
The death toll climbed, with two dozen dead. The newly-appointed acting director of the FBI – one J. Edgar Hoover – decided to put together an investigation. Hoover’s still-fledgling agency blew it, leaving him no choice but to try and assemble an undercover team that might be able to break through the wall of corruption and get to the truth.
That team – led by a former Texas Ranger by the name of Tom White – would use state-of-the-art detection techniques to uncover what would prove to be a massive and convoluted conspiracy, one rife with double crosses and triple crosses. Betrayal lurked around every corner and beneath every rock; it seemed that there was no one that White – or the Osage – could trust. The depths – and heights – reached by this plot would entangle friends, family and some of the most powerful men in Oklahoma.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is one of the most propulsive, engrossing true-crime stories that I’ve ever had the opportunity to read. Grann has no problem with striding right up to the line between compelling and overwrought, keeping the reader teetering on edge for deliciously-extended stretches. It is lushly written; there’s a purplish hue that lays over the prose and points up the lurid nature of the narrative without ever succumbing to the urge to exploit.
This is a story about investigating a crime, yes, but it is also a story about a society that cared so little about the lives of Native Americans that it simply turned its head and attempted to ignore these horrific crimes. It’s a remarkably fine line to walk, yet Grann doesn’t even seem to be trying all that hard – and that effortlessness certainly translates to the reading experience.
The narrative is so rich, packed with compelling characters, unbelievable schemes and plot twists that would potentially render a cynical fiction reader incredulous. “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells an immersive tale, one whose outsized elements capture exquisitely the unique nature of 1920s Osage County – warts and all.
What’s so remarkable about this historical snapshot is its clarity. The depth of research is apparent on every page; Grann has packed this book with an incredible degree of detail. It’s the best kind of nonfiction – the kind that imparts significant, interesting information while still managing some old-fashioned rip-roaring storytelling. It’s a combination that we too rarely get to experience – and this book has it.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is narrative history done right, a captivating and powerful account. This is masterful, emotionally gripping work from David Grann – the sort of book that grabs the reader by the lapels and flat-out refuses to let go. One of the best reads of the year.