Killers of the Flower Moon: a Real-Live Mystery (Review)

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Reviewed by CJ Verburg

Writing about a real-life mystery is tricky. In contrast to fiction, the author can’t step into a participant’s narrative voice to help readers feel they’re watching events unfurl in real time. There are too many characters tromping in and out of the story, some central and some not, most of them without enough distinguishing features for a reader to keep them straight. And the plot can take years, even decades, to reach a conclusion — with or without the satisfaction of a climax.

The murderous scheme David Grann describes in Killers of the Flower Moon is shocking and horrifying, but not riveting. Like War and Peace, this is a book I’d have enjoyed more if I’d seen the movie, so as to connect faces and voices with the dozens of characters, and to visualize the parched, inhospitable land whither the Osage were relegated by whites until oil was discovered there. Black-and-white photos help, but not enough.

Just when the first round of slaughter is starting to be recognized and traced to its perpetrators (though in most cases, never avenged), Grann himself steps in. As he describes his own research, we become a Watson to his Holmes. His skills at digging out the truth are awesome; still, I wish he were a stronger storyteller.

Yet the systematic murder of so many people, and the role this case played in the creation of a Federal Bureau of Investigation to expand the reach of policing organizations like the Texas Rangers, is an important piece of American history. I’m glad there is a film in the works. I’ll hang onto the book to read again after I’ve seen it.

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