Review: David Grann’s new book elevates true-crime genre

There is nothing pulpy or exploitative about David Grann’s new book, set for release on Tuesday (April 18). That is rare to say about a nonfiction work that contains many pages describing the bloodshed of innocent people. But although death hovers over much of Killers of the Flower Moon—the blood cries out from the ground, as one character says—the gory details stay in the background. That is not to say the book is boring; on the contrary, it is deeply intriguing. But its narrative is so prominent that many readers might forget they are learning about a dark, forgotten chapter in American history.

That combination of readability and socially conscious journalism is what makes the book so valuable. It is fair to assume that Killers of the Flower Moon will be the only bestselling book this year on the Osage Indians.

The Osage are a Native American tribe who were once powerful in the Midwest. The US government forced them from their homes in Kansas to Indian territory in Oklahoma. That process of ethnic cleansing was a familiar story in 19th-century America. But, unbeknownst to either party, the Osage’s new land was home to some of the largest oil deposits in America. Amazingly, the Osage went from being too militarily weak and impoverished to remain in their native land to, for a time, the wealthiest people in the world.

Like overnight rock stars or NBA players today, some Osage became overwhelmed by their successes and lived recklessly. “There was nothing familiar to clutch and stay afloat in the world of white man’s wealth,” as one Osage historian put it. The Osage’s wealth also attracted white people who dreamed of making their own fortunes. “By one account, the amount of oil money had surpassed the total value of all the Old West gold rushes combined, and this fortune had drawn every breed of miscreant from across the country,” Grann writes. Given the bigoted views most white Americans had of the Osage, the relationship was ripe for exploitation. “The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine wrote ominously in 1920.

 

David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI hits bookstores next week.

David Grann’s new book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, hits bookstores next week.

 

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Some of the most powerful passages in Flowers of the Killer Moon deal with the federal government’s exploitative treatment of the Osage. Along with forcibly attempting them to assimilate and bestowing them with smallpox, the government rationed their money and then assigned them individual financial guardians who controlled their finances. “In practice, the decision to appoint a guardian—to render an Indian, in effect, a half citizen—was nearly always based on the quantum of Indian blood in the property holder,” writes Grann. The details of the federal government’s repression of America’s indigenous peoples are not the usual foray of true-crime thrillers.

But then there are the murders and the mystery. The disappearance of an Osage woman turns into a murder, which soon turns into many murders. So many Osage are killed that it seems that half the community must have been murdered within a short period in the 1910s and 1920s. Visiting the graves of victims, Grann observes that near Mollie’s “were the plots of Mollie’s murdered sisters and her murdered brother-in-law, Bill Smith, and her murdered mother, Lizzie, and her murdered first husband, Henry Roan.” One FBI informant said there “hundreds and hundreds” of murders of Osage for their wealth, though the full tally will likely never be known.

Grann is best-known for his 2009 debut book, The Lost City of Z (made into a film now in theaters, starring Brad Pitt), as well as his pieces in The New Yorker and, before that, The New Republic. A dozen of those pieces were collected in 2010’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. Most were narratives of criminals or crimes; others profiled obsessive squid-hunters or baseball players.

The heroine of Killers of the Flower Moon is a Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart. Mollie is a Ma Joad-like island of stability in an ocean of chaos here, but nobody matches the legendary characters he has described in other work: the irrepressible Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z, the romantic Steve O’Shea in “The Squid Hunter,” the doomed Cameron Todd Willingham in “Trial By Fire.”

But Grann’s real signature in his writing is the surprise ending—and the surprise middle, and the other surprises in between. My favorite story of Grann’s, “The Imposter,” contains narrative trap doors that lead the reader to fall through more trap doors. Even among true crime writers, Grann finds shocking stories. Fortunately, unexpected events are present in droves in this book.

Also familiar to regular Grann readers will be the evocative prose. “The Shoun brothers set up a plank as a makeshift table,” he writes at one point. “From a medical bag, they removed a few primitive instruments, including a saw. The heat slithered into the shad. Flies swarmed. The doctors examined the clothes Anna wore—her bloomers, her skirt—searching for unusual tears or stains.” (19)

Though wary of the federal government, the Osage turned to the FBI for assistance, then still in its embryonic stages. After making the Osage pay for part of the investigation with their own money, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover returned responsibility for solving the crimes to state authorities. But then an FBI informant killed a cop in the Osage hills, and Hoover needed to investigate the murders to keep the bureau’s reputation—and perhaps very existence—intact.

He sent one of his best men, Tom White, who is among the few white men in Killers of The Flower Moon who comes across as honorable (aside from his affection for Hoover). Though White and some other investigators did yeoman’s work, it is left to Grann to connect dots left unconnected nearly a century later. It seems that he actually solves a murder that occurred 100 year ago and uncovers several others. If it’s not quite justice for the Osage, it’s at least a respectful tribute.

***

Pursuing justice through a narrative nonfiction book about murder is actually quite rare. A glance at the true crime section in any bookstore will reveal that, compared with other areas of non-fiction, true crime is weighted down by pulpy, exploitative works. Writers have yet to take to books en masse to write true crime with any sort of public interest component.

Journalists, of course, have long known that true crime can be both riveting and examine serious issues. Though now defunct, the Best Crime Reporting anthology series published annually from 2002 to 2010 (originally it was called The Best American Crime Writing) was a spectacular example of the genre. The Marshall Project and The Crime Report both routinely highlight and produce some of the best criminal-justice journalism available online. Aggregators like longreads and longform frequently collect high-quality true crime.

But for book-length projects, journalists have tended to eschew true crime, perhaps wary of being conflated with scribes who thrive on gory details and high body counts. That is a shame, because public respect for true crime is at an all-time high. The first season of the podcast Serial became such an influential cultural phenomenon in 2014 that it not only catapulted podcasting to the forefront of American media, it managed to revive popular respect for true crime. But books have yet to join the party. Perhaps Killers of the Flower Moon can help change that. With its focus on highlighting historical wrongs, David Grann has performed a service. That he might help elevate true crime books as an option for other journalists would be another.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.