Author: David Grann
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
Full title: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
I read it: November 2018
Grann’s latest smash-hit of narrative non-fiction deftly wraps together miniature histories about three core topics in the early 1920s: the Osage Indians in Oklahoma, the vast oil reserves that waited under their land and the ensuing black gold rush they caused, and the pivotal rebranding of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover. When I first read the subtitle, I wasn’t sure if the FBI would be the good guys or the bad guys in this story. Turns out they were the good guys overall, although of course nothing in history is so black and white as that, and one of Grann’s primary goals is to uncover the messiness of this strange chapter in America.
Broken into the three main parts, or “chronicles,” the book’s events are truly eye-opening. Chronicle one centers on Osage woman Mollie Burkhart, an owner of a “headright,” a lucrative stake in the oil fortune. Her family members are inexplicably murdered in a cold and calculated fashion, and local authorities struggle to uncover any leads. Chronicle two introduces cowboy hero Tom White, a lawman of the old Texas frontier who is employed by the more modern Washington branch that is taking on national crimes. He’s the perfect fit for tackling the Osage mystery, a man of character who works hard to dig up real evidence that could pin down the culprits.
Throughout the first two chronicles the book reads like a novel, the pages flying by as Grann geniously leads the reader through the whodunnit. The tale is heartbreaking and fascinating, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before, having studied at least some American Indian history in college and through free reading. Chronicle three, however, adds another layer: Grann is able to uncover a few extra shreds of the story that had not yet been brought to light. While the author put himself front and center throughout the adventurous tale The Lost City of Z, I had expected Killers of the Flower Moon to be a story told at a journalistic remove. But Grann winds everything into his present-day research and interviews with tribe members, expanding the scope of the previously accepted timeline of events.
This book will open up a dark voyeuristic curiosity within you, a fact slyly emphasized when Grann chooses to recount how the public received the story at the time:
Despite the brutality of the crimes, many whites did not mask their enthusiasm for the lurid story. OSAGE INDIAN KILLING CONSPIRACY THRILLS, declared the Reno Evening Gazette. Under the headline OLD WILD WEST STILL LIVES IN LAND OF OSAGE MURDERS, a wire service sent out a nationwide bulletin that the story, “however depressing, is nevertheless blown through with a breath of the romantic, devil-may-care frontier west that we thought was gone. And it is an amazing story, too. So amazing that at first you wonder if it can possibly have happened in modern, twentieth-century America.”
Grann’s version, too, fits the description. The book has all the dirty adventure of the American West (people were actually still committing “highway robberies,” for example), with the “you can’t make this up” aspect of other popular true-crime dramas. If you are willing to implicate yourself as an onlooker while enjoying such a wild tale, you can be assured that this page-turner will lock you in quicker than most modern novels.