Scott W. Berg’s books include “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.” He teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University.
The arc of David Grann’s career reminds one of a software whiz-kid or a latest-thing talk-show host — certainly not an investigative reporter, even if he is one of the best in the business. The newly released movie of his first book, “The Lost City of Z,” is generating all kinds of Oscar talk, and now comes the release of his second book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” the film rights to which have already been sold for $5 million in what one industry journal called the “biggest and wildest book rights auction in memory.”
Grann deserves the attention. He’s canny about the stories he chases, he’s willing to go anywhere to chase them, and he’s a maestro in his ability to parcel out information at just the right clip: a hint here, a shading of meaning there, a smartly paced buildup of multiple possibilities followed by an inevitable reversal of readerly expectations or, in some cases, by a thrilling and dislocating pull of the entire narrative rug.
All of these strengths are on display in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Around the turn of the 20th century, oil was discovered underneath Osage lands in the Oklahoma Territory, lands that were soon to become part of the state of Oklahoma. Through foresight and legal maneuvering, the Osage found a way to permanently attach that oil to themselves and shield it from the prying hands of white interlopers; this mechanism was known as “headrights,” which forbade the outright sale of oil rights and granted each full member of the tribe — and, supposedly, no one else — a share in the proceeds from any lease arrangement. For a while, the fail-safes did their job, and the Osage got rich — diamond-ring and chauffeured-car and imported-French-fashion rich — following which quite a large group of white men started to work like devils to separate the Osage from their money. And soon enough, and predictably enough, this work involved murder. Here in Jazz Age America’s most isolated of locales, dozens or even hundreds of Osage in possession of great fortunes — and of the potential for even greater fortunes in the future — were dispatched by poison, by gunshot and by dynamite.
Determining who committed these crimes makes up the ostensible plot of the book, its core mystery. But anyone with more than a rudimentary grounding in the history of white incursions into Native America will find themselves less than shocked at the revelations of Grann’s whodunit. To his credit, Grann knows this, which is why the first third of the book, if you’re reading closely, hedges enough in all of the right places to allow him to paint every white person, the obviously good and the obviously bad, as a possible suspect. When the final unmaskings come, midway through the book, I was disgusted — but I wasn’t surprised.
In any case, Grann is less interested in the solution to the Osage murders than he is in the truth-seekers themselves. If there’s a single way to describe his authorial persona, it’s that he sees himself — and often writes himself into the story — as a bloodhound on the trail of the bloodhounds. The protagonist of a Grann story is almost always the one who knows or who guesses right: the detective, the police officer, the lawyer, the friend harboring a set of unshakable suspicions.
In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” that figure is Tom White, former Texas Ranger, son of a county sheriff, an impossibly handsome field man with “the sinewy limbs and the eerie composure of a gunslinger” serving under an impossibly young J. Edgar Hoover in the infancy of the FBI. White comes to Osage territory after several failed investigations by local and federal authorities and cracks the case with almost absurd dispatch, in two short chapters I wish had been four long ones. Grann praises White’s “ability to discern underlying patterns and turn a scattering of facts into a taut narrative,” and if that wasn’t quite on the nose, he later describes the older federal files on the murders, the ones White used, as “bits of data vacuumed up without any chronology or narrative, like a novel whose pages were out of order.”
The book’s third section, after “The Marked Woman” and “The Evidence Man,” is titled “The Reporter.” Grann might as well have called it “Yours Truly.” The section begins as the author arrives at the scene of the crime(s) himself, all these years later, to begin his own digging. Such a moment might in fact be termed Grannian, because it’s so central to all of his work: the author turned intrepid investigator, stepping into the frame, hiking into the jungle, questioning the prisoner through the pane of glass, interviewing a highly placed government official or, so often, sitting at a desk as he pores over an old newspaper, handles a sheaf of brittle letters, digs through forgotten boxes in a forgotten basement.
At times the device, to my eye, can seem forced, but most often it’s as dramatic as any other element in Grann’s stories, and in “Killers of the Flower Moon” it’s crucial. As he unspools the story of the murders, Grann comes to realize, as do all outsiders who delve into Native American history, that to the Osage the past perpetually touches the present, creating a closed circle of history that never recedes into the distance. In no other area of American history, perhaps, is the collective amnesia of the larger culture greater than when it confronts its indigenous population. (If under similar circumstances this many white men and women of recently acquired wealth had died in, say, New York City in the years between the world wars, the story would have eclipsed every other murder tale in the nation’s history, and yet I’m embarrassed to say I’d barely heard of it.)
For the present-day Osage communities that Grann visits in the final quarter of the book, the events related in “Killers of the Flower Moon” are not last century’s news but yesterday’s. Many members of the tribe still wonder what exactly happened to grandparents, to great-aunts and uncles. Grann dives into old paperwork, looking to extend the work of White, and in the final pages he discovers the solutions to several ice-cold cases that had lain in archive after archive, close at hand but never before grasped.
History can be deep and dark and disorienting and enthralling. But inside the wildly entertaining plot strands of “Killers of the Flower Moon” sits an untidy and deadly serious story. To his credit, Grann seems to understand this, and when he appears, it’s not as a hero, like White, but simply as a messenger, albeit one with a Hollywood-size megaphone. Here’s hoping he continues to use it so well.
By David Grann
Doubleday. 338 pp. $28.95