While vacationing in England in 2017, Joshua Hammer spotted a short news story about a thief of falcon eggs who had jumped bail and was on the run. It was buried in the back of the newspaper, something most readers probably passed over quickly.
But for Hammer, the article raised questions: What kind of person raids falcon aeries, and why would the eggs be valuable enough for a criminal to risk his life getting them? “The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird” is Hammer's chronicle of egg stealer Jeffrey Lendrum.
Falcons are prized in the Middle East, wild ones even more so because they’re considered faster and stronger than domesticated birds. “Middle Eastern aficionados,” Hammer explains, “were spending ... allegedly up to $400,000 for a single bird, to acquire raptors illegally from the wild.”
That’s why Lendrum, a gifted student of nature, was willing to dangle from a rope beneath a helicopter, hover perilously over a falcon’s nest, then snatch several eggs, Grinch-like, for illegal smuggling. Lendrum did it not only for the money but also for the thrill, an impulse Hammer seems to understand intuitively. Books like these, after all, are often chronicles of obsessives rendered by writers who are, in their own way, obsessives too.
Reading “The Falcon Thief,” one thinks of Truman Capote, who elaborated on a tiny news story about the killing of a Kansas farm family, turning that grim tragedy into the seminal feat of reportage “In Cold Blood.” Capote popularized the “nonfiction novel,” a narrative grounded in fact, but with the propulsive pacing of a work conceived solely from the imagination.
This is very much what Hammer is after in “The Falcon Thief,” which can sometimes read like the treatment for a James Bond movie.
Like Capote, Hammer has a keen eye for elegant detail. In one example of his painterly prose, he describes the surface of one falcon egg as “all brown archipelagoes and continental landmasses juxtaposed against bright red lakes, gulfs and seas.”
Another obvious point of comparison is “The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession,” Susan Orlean’s 1998 account of the renegade exotic-plant rustler John Laroche.
Hammer, in the Orlean tradition, views his outlaw subject with a restraint that sometimes evolves into sympathy. He documents the implications of Lendrum’s egg-pilfering for the world’s fragile ecology, but he writes, “I felt sorry for Lendrum in some ways.” Hammer continues, “Charming, energetic, resourceful, intelligent, and passionate about birds of prey, he could ... have probably made a noteworthy career in academics, field research, or wildlife conservation. But he was conflicted between his love for animals and his need to possess them.”
Hammer is best known for “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts,” his 2016 book about librarians who smuggle thousands of priceless manuscripts out of their city to save them. Taken together, that memorable tale and “The Falcon Thief” invite readers to consider how daring exploits can be used for good or villainy.
Underlining the moral urgency of “The Falcon Thief” is the reality that Lendrum is not alone in his excesses. Hammer profiles an underground community of collectors who embrace exotic eggs as an ornithological fetish.
Examining a clutch of unlawfully obtained bird eggs that authorities eventually turned over to a museum, Hammer muses on “man’s perpetual insistence on imposing his will upon the wildness of our world, and of the tiny handful of investigators, most unrecognized, working to safeguard the environment’s bounty and wonder.”
The appeal of “The Falcon Thief” is that it involves us in our own form of compulsion – finding out what will happen next.