Thurber House series brings in bestselling author of 'Lost City of Z' and new 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Whether it's a deep dive into the case of an executed death row inmate who may have been innocent, or the search for a giant squid, stories told by New Yorker staff writer David Grann are impossible to put down.
In the hands of a master storyteller like Grann, meticulous research and exhaustive, incisive interviews form the substructure of real-life plots that read like spellbinding novels. Grann's first foray into book-length narrative nonfiction was bestseller The Lost City of Z, which told the little-known story of 1920s explorer Percy Fawcett's quest to find a fabled city deep in the Amazon jungle.
Grann's writing is consistently cinematic, so it's no surprise Z was recently adapted for the big screen.
“My wife and I went to see a premiere in LA, which was fun. I'd never been to a premiere,” Grann said recently by phone, speaking about the just-released film version of his book, starring Charlie Hunnam. “I tend to write about stories that are often not that well-known, and what's nice is that when the movie is made, the story can reach a new audience.”
Within a week of the film's debut, Grann is also releasing his newest book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, and he'll visit the Columbus Museum of Art on Wednesday, April 26, to discuss the book as part of the Thurber House's “Evenings with Authors” series.
The idea for Killers of the Flower Moon originated when a historian friend told Grann a bit about the Osage Native American tribe back in 2011. “I did a little research and discovered that the Osage had become the wealthiest people in the world back in the early 20th century, and that they had then become serially targeted and murdered, and that it had become one of the FBI's first major homicide cases,” Grann said. “I was shocked that this was something I hadn't been taught in school or read in history books.”
In 2012, Grann traveled to the Osage Nation Museum in Oklahoma and was struck by a panoramic photograph taken in 1924. “It showed members of the tribe and white settlers, businessmen, standing together. It looked very innocent. But a part of the photograph had been cut out,” he said. “I asked the museum director what had happened to the missing panel, and she said it contained this figure that was so frightening that she had removed it. She pointed to the missing panel and said the devil was standing right there.
“She then went into the basement and showed me an image of the missing panel, and it contained the figure of one of the masterminds of many of the killings. The book really grew out of trying to understand who that figure was, and trying to understand the history — that the Osage had removed the image not to forget, but because they can't forget.”
Through his reporting, Grann was able to pinpoint a likely new killer who hadn't been revealed previously, though in other cases the evidence was lacking. But Grann stressed the importance of reckoning with doubts and the unknown instead of eliding over them.
“This was a crime story much less about one person who did it … but really about a culture of killing, and that there were many conspirators who participated in these crimes and covered up the crimes,” he said. “It's much easier to think of a criminal case as a singular evil figure, and that the lawmen come in and remove that evil and society returns to normal. It's much more disturbing if we discover that some of that evil could lurk in the heart of so many ordinary people.”