Two-thirds of the way through this book [Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI] and I was fixing to get very disappointed. Sure, David Grann had done what his title said that he was going to do. He had thrown us into the strange wave of murders that plagued Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Native people, newly enriched from headright sales of mineral rights, were dying mysteriously, violently, in great numbers. Some nefarious plot was brewing and people were poisoned, shot, bombed, and thrown from trains.
Enter Agent Tom White and the new Bureau of Investigation, soon to be the FBI. The upstanding law men, using a mix of Western savvy and modern scientific methods, cracked the case, identified the culprits, and brought them in. By the end of the second part, or “chronicle” as this book has it, the climactic courtroom scene has happened and we are well into the wrap-up stories of where the principals ended up. J. Edgar Hoover’s reputation has been solidified and he goes on to be a Washington institution. Tom White becomes the warden of Leavenworth and later writes a book. Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman at the center of the story, goes on to remarry. “We’re clearly winding things up here,” I thought.
So we had the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, as promised. But, wait—did we really get that much about the Osage people and their culture? And compelling as the storyline was, did it really end so cleanly? What about all the loose ends? The doctors who seemed not only incompetent but complicit? The other deaths that seemed to have nothing to do with the man who was fingered?
It was then that I noticed that some 70 pages still remained and yet a third chronicle. The story was about to get much better and much worse.
David Grann doesn’t linger over the big questions. Like the Bureau men he clearly admires, Grann sticks to the facts. Sometimes they are evocative facts, like the way the sun “floated above the rim of the earth—a perfect orange sphere that soon became half a sun, then a quarter, before dying off with a burst of dazzling light.” But most of the time they are much more prosaic.
It keeps his story simple, which is a relief because there are a lot of characters to keep up with here. The oil boom that made the Osage millionaires brought a lot of interests to Oklahoma. The way that the Osage story fits into the larger narrative of how white America dealt with native peoples was complicated enough and full of prejudice and exploitation. The system of guardianships that left mostly white men in charge of the wealth of the Osage (because the Osage were deemed incapable of managing it on their own) only compounded the problems.
So when the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective. Grann uses a Faulkner quote from Absalom! Absalom! to send us down into the abyss: “We see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.”
When the easily-grasped story of a corrupt and murderous villain busted by a virtuous and relentless lawman is undone in the third act, it is very effective.
Maybe it’s because Grann really does feel that the people whose lives he is exploring are inexplicable that he lets Faulkner carry all the weight of what this all means. He can’t fathom the horrors of a story that is not about one bad actor but a whole society. He can’t begin to get at the psychological scars such a history produces. He doesn’t have answers for the desolation he sees out on the depopulated prairie where this story unfolded.
So he does the responsible thing and just points. Look at this. Behold. See if you can keep your innocence in the face of this story. And all those facts from early in the book that seemed distant and quaint and made you think of the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s? How distant and quaint do they seem now? I helped you look at this. You’ve got to look at us.
Grann does what he can and it is considerable. This is historical journalism that resonates.