Conn College grad David Grann returns behind his "Killers of the Flower Moon"
Fans who love over-the-top serial killer films can afford a bit of gleeful, guilt-free fascination because it's fiction. Similarly, some of the fun in contemplating dark conspiracy theories is that, frankly, they're just too unwieldly to pull off.
This stuff doesn't really happen, right?
Except ... when it did.
In the 1920s, on the Osage Indian Nation in northern Oklahoma, a series of grisly and connective murders took place. Over time, one by one, at least 20 and perhaps as many as 100 Osage were poisoned, shot and burned to death. The motive for the carnage ended up being bigotry and resentment tied in with a lot of greed; when oil was discovered underneath Osage land, members of the tribe became the per capita wealthiest people in the world.
As for a conspiracy angle, the culprits turned out to be much-trusted confidantes of the tribe whose spider-web machinations were astonishing in complexity and duplicity.
This story was researched and eloquently reported by author David Grann, a 1989 Connecticut College graduate, in his searing nonfiction bestseller "Killers of the Flower Moon," a finalist last year for the National Book Award. And Grann, a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of the similarly successful titles "The Lost City of Z" and "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes," returns to his alma mater Tuesday to discuss "Killers of the Flower Moon" as part of Conn's "President's Distinguished Lecture Series."
Grann, who says much of his work evolves from a fascination with learning about stuff he doesn't know or isn't familiar with, heard vague details about long-ago homicides on the Osage land, but couldn't find anything out about what happened. He decided to take a trip to Oklahoma and hunt around because, well, that's what he does. And, the more he found out, the more he was appalled and transfixed.
In the opening chapters, "Killers of the Flower Moon" focuses on Molly Burkhart, a young Osage woman whose siblings and other family members became prime targets in the perplexing series of murders. The parameters of the story expand from there, ultimately including an extensive cast of sharply drawn characters and an escalating series of increasingly unbelievable actions and reactions.
Those elements alone would make a tremendous book. But, as Grann researched and wrote, an unanticipated and history-changing tangent arose. The events happened in rural Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century, at a major transition point into the modern world. As such, the prevailing reality of law enforcement was still Wild Western in flavor — lacking organization, delineation, laws and job qualification. Virtually anyone with a gun could find a path to integrate his or her way into working a case.
It was a situation that, taking place on federal land as per the tribe's agreement, and coupled with the mounting body count and complete investigative disarray, brought in the fledgling FBI on one of its first high-profile cases. The bureau's young director, J. Edgar Hoover, bungled the case badly and it took the innovative forensic and investigative efforts of special agent Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, to ultimately clear the case.
Grann recently spoke by phone about "Killers of the Flower Moon" and his writing process. Here are excerpts, edited for space.
On the emotional impact involved in writing a story that a) in its callous and vicious racism against Native Americans is sadly relevant to modern times and b) breathtakingly captures the segue from America's frontier into the modern era:
"When I started research, I was collecting photographs of the victims because they were integral as part of the book's documentation. I originally had photos of Molly and her family members and I put them on a shelf in my office. By the time I was finished, five years later, the photographs went across my entire bookshelf — it was a constant reminder of what this project was about.
"One tries to be dispassionate but it's also important to allow yourself to feel a social injustice and to try to capture and record that emotion and certainly the voices of the victims. Watching the line of photos grow struck me in my little office, and I think the thing that was most shocking — even after a fair amount of time researching and a good sense of the crimes against the Osage for their oil rights — was the sheer breadth of the crime. I begin writing what I thought was a whodunnit and that wasn't the case. It was really a story about the culture of complicity and all the elements of a society either taking part or helping to cover it up. There are certainly echoes of that today."
On the difficulty and balance of writing a nonfiction crime book that flows and builds tension but still integrates facts, backstory and historical context — and how he chose to structure the book:
"It is a challenge. I'm a big believer that you can tell stories that are true and factually accurate but told in such a way that draws readers into the narrative. But the idea is also to illuminate institutional racism, social injustice and law enforcement.
"(For the Osage), it was a real-time mystery. I chose Molly to anchor the record in the Osage perspective, which had been significantly neglected. Also, Molly showed the story as it was happening. She doesn't know what's happening and these are deeply intimate crimes. She's trying to figure out what's happening and the people behind her are hiding evidence. "
On luck and timing in research, particularly regarding an old photograph:
"There's always a certain fortuity to events. I couldn't find anything on the case, so I went to Oklahoma and the Osage Museum seemed a logical place to start. At that point I had no idea whether I'd write about it. And just as I was about to leave, I saw this panorama photo of the Osage. I looked closer and noticed one panel had been removed. I thought, 'Why has someone been taken out of this picture?'
"The curator went down to the basement and showed me the missing section. It was creepy because it was the photo of the killer in the story — and the notion was driven home to me that the Osage had removed that as a reminder of what they'd gone through ... and that it had been sort of removed from our consciousness.
"In telling stories or seeking what motivates you to tell stories, you need these galvanizing moments. That photograph was almost a literal metaphor for what I do. As you learn about stories, there are sometimes these unexplained moments. I sometimes wonder: How many stories are perhaps lost when something like that doesn't happen?"
On the possibility, in researching and writing an incredibly complex and poignant story, of getting blindsided by something he uncovers during the process:
"Definitely! It's so important to try to keep an open mind; we're all susceptible to tunnel vision from time to time. My original conception of 'Flower Moon' was completely demolished. One of the challenges was because so many of the murders were covered up — and the perpetrators and witnesses were deceased — that I couldn't bring closure. The tendency is to hide what you're missing in your research. Ultimately, I wanted that doubt to be a central theme for that part of the book: That so many Osage lived with this doubt and a lack of certainty, and that changed my view of history.
"I spent so much time there and went from being that strange guy who's back in town again to someone they began to trust. They were so gracious and amazing. They understood I was investigating an incredibly tragic story — a story that belongs to a broader consciousness. I had the good fortune to meet with some of the Osage elders and learned about their life and traditions along with what had happened. It was such an essential part of the story as a writer. It remains the high point of my experience."
If you go
Who: Bestselling author and Connecticut College alum David Grann
What: Discusses his book "Killers of the Flower Moon" as the third presentation in "The President's Lecture Series"
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Cummings Arts Center, Evans Hall, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London
How much: free, open to the public
For more information: (860) 447-1911, www.conncoll.edu/events