Typically, the phrase “true crime” brings to mind stories of serial murderers—not of, say, thieves and traffickers of rare eggs. But in The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird, Joshua Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu) has crafted a story that will fascinate readers craving a dramatic true tale of confident criminals, denizens of shadowy underworlds and the law enforcers who strive to catch and punish them.
First, the bad guy. Jeffrey Lendrum is an audacious criminal who travels the world stealing rare eggs from birds of prey and selling them to uber-wealthy falcon enthusiasts in the United Arab Emirates. Our hero, Andy McWilliam, is a career police officer who rose to the top of the U.K.’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, thanks to his success tracking and capturing wildlife-related criminals such as badger-baiters, zookeepers and real estate developers. But his specialization, of course, is ornithological crime solving.
Hammer’s exploration of the factors that culminated in egg trafficking is thorough and fascinating, offering context and entertainment alike. He plumbs the origins of falconry, which began as a means of survival (peregrines were trained hunters) and over the centuries evolved into the high-dollar, high-stakes sport it is today. In Dubai, there’s a falcon hospital, research center and the President Cup, a racing event with an $11 million purse. It’s mind-boggling, but in Hammer’s hands it makes a bizarre kind of sense: Rather than collecting jerseys and memorizing stats, falcon-obsessed men (they’re all men, it seems) steal and collect eggs, keep meticulous notes and are always planning their next get. The wealthiest members of this group in the UAE hire out such tasks to men like Lendrum who thrive on the adrenaline rush of plundering nature.
Hammer paints a vivid portrait of the thrill of the chase and the long-term relationship between criminal and police officer—both of them smart and daring, neither of them willing to give up. The Falcon Thief also shines a light on the world of wildlife crime: its perpetrators, addicted to their pursuits; its wealthy and Machiavellian masterminds; and our heroes, who work toward ensuring that all creatures are safe from the greedy and devious few. Ultimately, this book is a fine tribute to McWilliam and to others dedicated to conservation, and a compelling deep dive into the psyche of a very specific sort of criminal.