The most compelling yet enervating aspect of the recent true-crime boom is the tethering of gruesome accounts of cold cases and false accusations to greater social significance.
The most compelling yet enervating aspect of the recent true-crime boom is the tethering of gruesome accounts of cold cases and false accusations to greater social significance. Thus, the infuriating spectacle of walking-guilty-sign Robert Durst’s law evasion stands in for the abhorrent privilege of the rich, while “Serial” highlights the racial prejudices of the judicial system (while, according to some, displaying its own). Per the subtitle of David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, the broader impact of the crimes charted in the book has concrete historical implication. Detailing a rash of killings in Osage County, Oklahoma during the 1920s, Grann’s gripping account parallels the rise of the nascent FBI, with a young, ambitious J. Edgar Hoover looming over the area from afar, hoping to prove himself in Washington.
Hoover, however, does not make an appearance for most of the book’s first third. Instead, Grann digs into the Osage Nation and its tumultuous fortunes at the turn of the century that saw the Indian tribe relocated to a dreary patch of land in Oklahoma, only to discover that the entire reservation sat on a colossal oil pocket. Practically overnight, the Osage became, per capita, the wealthiest people in America. With that boom, however, came hordes of white hangers-on, including the U.S. government, which forced the Osage to have white monetary guardians who restricted rightful access to one’s bank accounts into modest allowances in a show of federal paternalism. Graft and vice run rampant, though Grann primarily homes in on the extreme illustration of both the capitalistic death of the Old West and of rapid Native American assimilation that the reservation comes to embody. The author centers the rapid changes on Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman born to poverty and elevated by the wildest curveball of luck ever pitched, a humble, church-going person who perfectly straddled the two eras of Osage life to that point. She also becomes the focal point because nearly every single person in her family comes to die under suspicious, if not outright foul, circumstances.
The book’s first act is a chilling account of a creeping mass murder, a small-scale reign of terror in which people turn up in the countryside with bullet holes in their heads, or seemingly fit people suddenly waste away from mysterious illnesses. Grann writes as if living in town, watching as the fierce strength of a local chief turns to frailty, or how each successive loss of a sibling or other loved one to murder or “disease” gradually increases her withdrawn paranoia. The gradual realization that something is wrong, that the isolated deaths are adding together and the unifying element is access to Indian oil land, is both infuriating and heartbreaking, with the Osage coming to the horrified realization that not even the insulating protection of wealth can save them from continued exploitation and eradication. And even as the fear grows within the community, outside spectators can scarcely mask their envy and racist self-loathing; one reporter, published in Harper’s, goes so far as to print “The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”
Of course, something was being done about it, and eventually something had to be done about what was happening to the Osage. Enter Hoover, having recently been handed oversight of a nascent federal law enforcement branch and seeking to prove himself, especially after a desperately tamped-down scandal involving a deliberately freed informer who went rogue and engaged in a crime spree. Grann juxtaposes Hoover, the perennial desk-man always seeking to curry favor and gain power, with Tom White, the old-school lawman recruited into the bureau and the top agent in charge of the Osage investigation. White receives a glowing profile, depicted as a stern, diligent man who nonetheless never put a man in the ground despite his gunslinger image. He leads a group of rugged, practical investigators who mix classic undercover work with new methods of detection and forensic analysis, and does so with a sense of true justice. Lest this come off as some kind of Mississippi Burning-esque ode to the noble white officers who intervened on behalf of minorities, however, White’s sincerity is always never too far away from Hoover’s calculating cynicism and narcissistic showmanship.
If Grann slowly inserted the knife in setting up the crimes that befall the Osage, he twists it mercilessly as White and his squad uncover the knotty conspiracies that led to the murders and an interconnected web of cover-ups. White townsfolk introduced as upstanding allies and beacons of the community are revealed as heartless plotters, and the intrigue runs so deep that doctors, undertakers, cops and various other authority figures and experts all contribute to a colossal, blood-soaked con on the tribe. The author stages each major twist with a hammer blow, and when Mollie Burkhart reemerges into the narrative, she does so completely rattled and hopelessly pitiable, having had everything taken from her by those she thought she knew.
The book’s final third sticks to Grann’s own account of discovering the story, long forgotten in the FBI’s subsequent successes in areas involving victims who, frankly, were white and thus more sympathetic to the majority of the nation. The somber, tidy false conclusion that closes out the second act seems to leave little to explore, but Grann’s personal account is anything but self-serving. In describing his interactions and friendships with the few Osage County residents who were alive during the murders, as well as the town’s descendants, Grann comes away with a portrait of lingering pain, of crimes that implicate even more people than the FBI’s original case and of a malaise that seeps into the soil. The three sections of the book are clearly divided and thematically developed, but the overall portrait painted by the intersections of each related topic sketches a grim portrait of the nation’s emergence into the 20th century. Hidden barely beneath the surface is a sense of pure outrage that this story should ever have slipped from the forefront of public knowledge.