Books

David Grann
Killers of the Flower Moon

It’s funny the way even true crime has its prestige market. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is a most elaborate and densely historical account of a pile of horrible murders, executed by David Grann with what is sometimes a conscious grandeur of manner. 

It’s at every point a smooth and eloquent piece of writing but it’s essentially the story of how the Native Americans of the Osage people in Oklahoma were systematically murdered by a group of ghastly, sometimes powerful whites who were essentially after their money. And of how the uncovering of their set of crimes became a notable scalp on the belt of the early Federal Bureau of Investigation – which lately one can’t help feeling a bit more fond of – under that formidable but unlovely man J. Edgar Hoover.

So why would rich and powerful Americans set about killing the Osage if it were not mere race hatred and prejudice? Because the Osage were rich. 

The people of the Osage nation were one of the last groups of Native Americans to be rounded up and put on a reservation. But then everything seemed for a moment there to turn to magic because oil was discovered on their land and the Osage people came to be the richest in America.

They wore silk gowns, they displayed diamonds, they had white servants to tend them and white chauffeurs to drive their limousines. It was all like the rainbow side of the American Dream except, as it turned out, there was witchcraft of the most hideous kind in the mix. Not in the blend of Osage ancestor smoke religion with the incense and sacramentalism of the Catholic Church, to which these Native Americans had been conscripted when, before their days of gladness, they’d been rounded up and sent to boarding schools and taught to read and write. 

But even when they became the richest of all Americans, their access to their own wealth was in fact supervised by white representatives, some of whom were, to say the least, unscrupulous while others were wicked beyond belief.

At the outset of Killers of the Flower Moon, a rich Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart – with a white husband acting as the enabler of her wealth – set about trying to have investigated the fact that her family seemed to be dying all around her for no known reason. They were shot, they were poisoned, they were subject to some mysterious law of annihilation.

As more and more Native Americans bite the dust until you really wonder if then there will be none, it’s hard to know what to concentrate on. Grann works for The New Yorker and is some kind of master of the sort of fluent, well-oiled narrative saga that goes its purposive way we know not where.

You think a particularly perfidious act of murder is going to be solved but then body is piled on body, murder confounds murder and we start to wonder – simply as readers of narrative – if we’re not in the presence of a muddle rather than a mystery, to invoke E. M. Forster.

It’s one potential criticism of Grann that his book’s historical masterliness in combination with its forensic detail leaves the reader wondering which threat they should be attending to, which dead body is going to come back floating down this river of blood. 

And in that respect Killers of the Flower Moon – which for some is liable to have an irresistible exotic quality of poisoned orchids and dark haunts – is at some level necessarily inferior to the top level of film or TV documentary because the main detail (especially about the victims) is necessarily a bit sparse.

Grann is more intent on the thread than on the faces and bodies linked by it.

As a consequence the Osage people themselves – the victims who might have carried the world before them – are marginalised compared with their villainous and cold-hearted murderers and the man who comes to be their avenger and saviour, Texas Ranger Tom White.

White is the man who exposes the terrible conspiracy with the high and mighty backing of J. Edgar Hoover and enough is known about him for Killers of the Flower Moon to encapsulate a sort of biography of this more-or-less admirable man with a gun who saw his father hang a black boy in a fancy suit, and swore all his days that he didn’t want to see the state commit legal homicide. 

He thought his men should be slow on the draw but come out alive if they had to fight it out.

Killers of the Flower Moon is one of those books with impeccable liberal credentials that is at the same time going to be an ongoing compulsion for those who can’t live without revisiting old John Ford movies.

In fact it has Ford’s combination of the romance of firearms and strong men of the law with that sense of the tragic dignity of the Native American, the quality that is there not only in The Searchers but in that long late elegiac masterpiece Cheyenne Autumn.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a terrible story, one that takes the breath away when you realise how much brutality and cold-hearted evil went into killing Native American people because of the paradox that the riches of the earth had been afforded them pretty much accidentally.

It is a grim story and a grimy one and the fact that it comes with a recommendation from John Grisham is one reminder that this is a racketing bit of storytelling, full of red blood and dreck, but catering to an appetite. 

It’s not Ken Burns, it’s not Francis Parkman, it’s not Apologies to the Iroquois, but if those things are your Homer, then you will want to reach for your gun in wide streets, in bright dusty light. It will also make you weep for a brave people, done no justice or only too late.  QSS

Simon & Schuster, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 1, 2017 as "David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: QSS