Author David Grann talks about the genesis of his true-crime story “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.”
“I’ve often thought of history as the horror we know,” said David Grann, “but researching this book made me realize that perhaps the deepest horror is what we don’t know.”
Grann, a longtime writer for The New Yorker and author of the essay collection “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes” and the 2009 book “The Lost City of Z,” is talking about the culmination of a five-year project: his new book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” He’ll discuss the book — a national and local best-seller — at 7 p.m. July 18 at Elliott Bay Book Co.
“Killers of the Flower Moon,” as with all of Grann’s work, is a true story — but it unfolds like an enthralling work of fiction with a cinematic sprawl. (Yes, there’s a movie in development; Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Forrest Gump” and “The Insider,” is scripting.)
The author of “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” will speak at Elliott Bay Book Co. at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 18; free (elliottbaybook.com or 206-624-6600).
In 1920s Osage County, Oklahoma, members of the Osage Nation — an extremely wealthy tribe due to oil discovered on its land — began to die under mysterious circumstances. It was a period known as the “Reign of Terror,” and as the death toll rose, the still-nascent FBI became involved. Slowly, an elaborate and horrific conspiracy was revealed.
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For Grann, the story really began on a 2012 visit to the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. He’d heard about the murders a year earlier — “a historian had mentioned it to me, and said nobody had written about it. I was pretty shocked that I had never read anything about it.” At the museum, he saw a panoramic photograph on the wall, taken in 1924, in which a large group of Osage tribe members posed with local white businessmen.
“It looked like a peaceful gathering,” Grann said of the photo, which is reproduced in his book, “and yet, a portion on the left had been cut out. I asked the museum director what had happened to the missing panel. She said, ‘The devil was standing there.’ ”
The missing image, said Grann, showed “one of the masterminds of the killing,” standing quietly among members of the Osage, in a suit and tie. “For me, that, in many ways, was the spark.”
And so began a lengthy odyssey of research, taking Grann across the country gathering evidence from Osage Nation members (many descended from the victims), from archives and libraries and FBI files, from fading photographs of people gone but not forgotten. Many of those photos found their way into the book; “I wanted this to be a work of documentation,” Grann said.
For a long time, Grann said, he struggled with how to tell such a complex story, finally answering the question with a three-part structure. The first part of the book focuses on Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to a white man, who gradually came to suspect that her Osage family was being targeted.
“I thought it was important to have the book anchored in the Osage point of view,” said Grann. “She is kind of the soul and the conscience of the book. She crusaded for justice.”
Burkhart’s life story — born in a lodge on the prairie, she was soon separated from her family and forced to attend a Catholic mission school — is poignantly told, and Grann said that he himself took part of the two-day journey, on an old road, that young Mollie would have traveled to the remote school. “I was just trying to imagine what it was like for this little girl going so far from her home, to a kind of alien place,” he said. “She was just such a striking person to me.”
The book’s second part revolves around Tom White, the strait-laced FBI man who seems to have stepped out of the movies — “He was 6 feet 4 and had the sinewy limbs and the eerie composure of a gunslinger” — and who organized the investigation. Like Burkhart, White was “a transitional figure,” Grann said; both had lives that straddled the century and saw remarkable change. White’s career began “when law was often meted out by the smoking barrel of a gun”; by the time of the Osage trial, he was wearing a suit and filing paperwork. “In some ways,” Grann said, “the book is about the birth of law enforcement.”
And the third section involves Grann himself, beginning with that trip to the Osage museum. “It gave me a way to show the reader what [the Osage Nation] is like today, what happened to their money, to track down many of the descendants. And a way to show that history is very elusive and we often only understand it over time, with more perspective, with more evidence coming to life. I tried to show in my section that there was this much deeper, darker conspiracy that the bureau never exposed. A criminal conspiracy that was really a culture.”
In a passage in the book, Grann mentions how the early 20th century was a time of great interest in the idea of the all-seeing private detective, one who “found order in a scramble of clues.” Such a detective’s signature, wrote Grann, “was not the smoking six-shooter; instead, like Sherlock Holmes, he relied upon the startling powers of reason and deduction, the ability to observe what the Watsons of the world merely saw.”
It was a description, I thought, that might apply to Grann, and to many of the great writers of narrative nonfiction. Grann took a broader view, saying that all of us search for order. “Mollie was trying to make sense of the world that was in great flux, unmoored from tradition, and also to make sense of a criminal conspiracy. Tom White was also trying to make sense of a world that’s been transformed, to make sense of this bewildering array of murders. As a writer, I’m trying the best I can to make sense.
“There’s a wonderful image that the Osage use: When they were heading into unfamiliar territory, whoever was going first, they were known as the travelers in the mist. I thought, we are all travelers in the mist, trying to make sense of the world.”