Another month, another book review. And this month’s book review comes to you from the fascinating genre of true crime. Everyone and their kitchen sink has been obsessed with true crime for years now. Podcasts, Netflix originals, retellings, you name it. A new generation was introduced to serial killers like Ted Bundy in the creepy Netflix documentary, Conversations with a killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. But there’s one true crime case, that to this day is still majority unsolved, that hasn’t been getting a lot of press.
That case is the Reign of Terror, better known as the Killer of the Flowers Moon. The case that lead to the FBI becoming the Federal Bureau it is today. Most people (myself included) assumed that the FBI was made into a federal entity in the United States as a result of the public enemies sensation that swept the United States around the Great Depression. I was introduced to this due to the Johnny Depp-led movie, Public Enemies, about the life and death of gangster John Dillinger. But this is a common misconception. It was actually the Reign of Terror, involving the slow and systematic murder of the Osage tribe of Native Americans in Oklahoma, that lead to the FBI’s almost-mythical status in American folklore. And this is what is explored in David Grann’s true crime nonfiction, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a 400-page (at least my large-print edition) read detailing the history of the Osage, specifically Mollie Burkhart, an Osage whose family and friends were slowly being killed off for their oil money. From the Amazon bio:
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances.
I learned of this story after reading an edited excerpt from some online news site not long after it was released in 2017. Recently, I was watching a BookTuber when I came across another mention of Killers of the Flower Moon. This was enough to pique my interest, and I immediately requested it out from the library.
Despite its long length, Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, from start to finish. I was amazed I hadn’t heard of this before Grann. Scores of Osage, ranging anywhere up to the hundreds, were murdered, simply for their money. A bunch of white people were murdered trying to help serve justice (W. W. Vaughan’s being the most horrifying). Everywhere, someone was covering up the murders. A third of the book in, we think we’ve found justice. The FBI has figured out who’s responsible for murdering Mollie Burkhart’s family. Two men connected to Burkhart, helped by accomplices unnamed and criminals known, were arrested and jailed.
Then the horrifying reality. These men were only connected to the murders of Burkhart’s sisters, mother, and brother-in-law. The latter quarter of the book has Grann digging into the case, with research and case notes and interviews with relatives of the Reign of Terror victims, and we discover…justice was never truly served. Many killers got away scot-free.
Because of this, Killers of the Flower Moon took a while to read. The disturbing reality of this whole story—the fact that so many people, many in places of influence—covered up so many murders, was fascinating, in that awful sense. But that is a testament to Grann’s writing style. The way he writes about the life and death of both Mollie Burkhart and the main FBI agent Tom White, made me invested in their lives. I felt legitimately annoyed when I discovered how much J. Edgar Hoover had covered up information about White’s heroism. I hoped so much for justice for Mollie, and to hear of her young death (at 50), while the perpetrators didn’t even get life sentences, seemed a travesty to the injustice system.
The first two parts of this book are about Mollie Burkhart and the FBI and solving the Osage murders. Some downsides? The history of the FBI, a small subsection in part two, was relatively dull and a little like a dull Wikipedia article. And while I was interested in learning about the modern day Osages in Oklahoma, I felt like Grann was drawing out this section to make it as long as the first two, and it kept feeling like we were reaching a conclusion, only for him to pull out more revelations. In spite of this, we aren’t treated to as much detail in part three as the first two, with Grann rushing through his theories and crime-solving skills. He helps grieving descendants work out roughly who killed W. W. Vaughan, but it feels like he’s trying to move on and get to the next crime-solving ASAP, like a super-speeding Batman. This could have easily been a hundred pages less, and still conveyed the same message. One must wonder if Grann is paid by the word, like a certain Stephen King must be.
We also have a lot of Grann criticising early-twentieth century people for not thinking like us respectable folks in the post-Civil Rights era, and it’s, frankly, confusing. While I understand his annoyance—clearly, racism is the key reason why so many innocent people were brutally murdered and their murders covered-up—it also would have been interesting to hear an analysis behind their racism other than 99% of white people bad, 1% of good white people killed and just that racists be racist. Ah well. Can’t always get what you want.
Overall, Killers of the Flower Moon is a book that is a fascinating, shocking, enthralling read for its first half to three-quarters. Afterwards, it becomes repetitive and redundant, despite still talking about important events, and you’re waiting for it to wrap up, but Grann keeps finding ways to delay the inevitable ending. The Reign of Terror is a horrifying piece of Oklahoman history, and Grann’s writing style conveyed the horror and terror of it appropriately. If you like learning about the early history of the FBI (and since-forgotten agents like Tom White and his team), this book is for you as well. It’s interesting to learn about the history of private eyes and the Bureau of Investigation, and I also learned a lot about American history I didn’t know much of before (like America’s longstanding distrust of police and enforced systems of policing). For the most part, Killers of the Flower Moon is a read that leave you feeling a tumult of emotions. While it could have been condensed, it’s still a good introduction to the lives of the Osage and the early history of the FBI.