The non-fiction book The Wager was one of my reading highlights this summer so when I heard of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann I jumped on it. This time, Grann takes us to early 20th century Oklahoma, a state established to house the many displaced Native Americans. After being forcibly moved away from fertile land, the Osage tribe were assigned a rocky patch of no apparent value until, that is, oil in large quantities was discovered. The Osage became immensely rich – at the time they were the wealthiest people in the world – and lived comfortable lives. For a while.
Grann follows one Native American woman, Mollie Burkhart, as she loses one family member after the other under mysterious circumstances. She seeks help, but the system is stacked against her. Firstly, an absurd structure of guardians existed, whereby a white person had to have control over the finances of a wealthy Native American. Law enforcement was a joke, with corrupt sheriffs and judges, often in charge of solving crimes that they themselves had committed. All kinds of people want to help Mollie, but who can be trusted?
Ironically, we can thank J. Edgar Hoover – not usually a hero of mine – for Mollie’s cases, and several others, being solved. It was his willingness to spend money and manpower on investigating the Osage murders, combined with the tenacity of investigator Tom White which led to convictions. Hoover’s motivations for doing so, not altogether altruistic, can be discussed, but it seems likely the cases would have stayed unsolved and ignored if it hadn’t been for their efforts. The Osage convictions cemented Hoover’s position and led to the establishment of the FBI.
Grann leaves no stone unturned – his books must take years to write – which is what makes them so exceptionally good. His meticulous research even takes the investigation further. Combine that with some pitch perfect writing and you are in non-fiction heaven.
Thanks to Grann, this shocking untold story, the evidence of which has been collecting dust for more than a century, will roar back into the collective memory through his excellent book and a soon-to-come-out filmed version, directed by none other than Martin Scorsese. Read it while you wait for the film.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann is published by Simon & Schuster, 352 pages.