Monday, November 13, 2017

The Best Book of the Year: "Killers of the Flower Moon"

Omnivoracious: Our Pick for the Best Book of the Year: "Killers of the Flower Moon":

What did this investigation do for the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover?

This case became one of the first major homicide cases of the FBI - it wasn't yet even called the FBI. It became one of J. Edgar Hoover's first big cases. The Bureau initially badly bungled the case. They were unable to solve it.... At one point they even released an outlaw - a guy named Blackie - hoping he could work as an informant to help solve the case. They were supposed to keep him under surveillance, but instead they lost track of him, and he proceeded to murder a policeman.
J. Edgar Hoover, at that point, feared a scandal. Hard to believe today, but he was still insecure in his power, although he had these great dreams of building a bureaucratic empire. So he turned the case over to a frontier lawman, a man named Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who took over the case [and] put together an undercover team. [One] went in as an insurance salesman - in fact, the "insurance salesman" used to be an insurance salesman before he pretended to be one.... He actually opened up a shop in Osage County he was selling actual policies. An agent went undercover who was an American Indian - probably then the only American Indian in the Bureau. They were able to capture some of the leaders of the conspiracy.
Hoover used the case to mythologize the Bureau, to establish more professional standards. He exploited the case in many ways, too - to self-mythologize, to build up his own power. The case was seminal in representing that transformation of law enforcement in the United States, from a period when justice was often meted out by the barrel of a gun to a time using more scientific forms of detection. Fingerprinting, handwriting analysis became very important in this case. It was also the beginning of the first national kind of law enforcement. One of the things that I was surprised when I was doing the research for the book was just how lawless the country was back then, how permissive corruption was, how poorly trained lawmen were. One of the reasons these murders persisted for so long was because of corruption, because of poor training, and because it was very easy to tilt the scales of justice. If you were powerful - if you had the money - you could tilt the scales of justice.

Former Texas Ranger and Osage murders investigator Tom White with J. Edgar Hoover

Along those lines, do you see any parallels or direct links between this story and more current events like Standing Rock?

I do think there are parallels. Interesting enough, I spoke to an Osage not too long ago who served in Afghanistan in the army, [who] has a Purple Heart. During Standing Rock, he walked almost all the way from the Osage Nation to North Dakota to participate in the protest. He told me that, during that time, he thought a lot about the Osage murders. And even though the issues are separated by nearly a century, and in some ways on their face seem different - one's about protection of the land from oil - they deal with the same fundamental issue, which is the rights of American Indian nations to control the resources, to control their land. And so it is, at its heart, the same issue. And a former Osage chief, who I spoke to about this said, he was shocked that today we are still debating these issues of recognizing tribal sovereignty over their land and the resources.

A scene from The Lost City of Z (image courtesy Amazon Studios)

On another front, the film adaptation of your book, The Lost City of Z has just been released. How involved were you in translating the book to film?

My main contribution to the movie was the book. I really am an author. I focus all my energies on the book and trying to get that right. James Gray is a wonderful director and filmmaker. He would occasionally call me for questions about research, about looking for materials and I would send them to him. But my work was making my trip into the Amazon, researching the story, and writing the book.

Did you have trouble letting go of it?

I think it's always hard to let go of something that you spend so much time with. In this case, I felt like the project was in good hands, so it was easier.

Have you seen it?

I did! It's a terrific movie!

The Lost City of Z trailer "

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