Across the 1920s, members of the Osage nation died at a rate far in excess of the national average. Some were obviously murdered, while others died under suspicious circumstances from unidentifiable wasting illnesses. At the time, the story of the mysterious deaths made national news and inspired multiple retellings, but over time, the Osage’s story faded almost entirely from both our nation’s memory and our history. As Grann tells the story of the Reign of Terror the Osage endured, he teases out the differences between the myths that Americans like to tell themselves—about the frontier, about the American Dream, about the self-made individual—and the historical realities these myths can gloss over or obscure. To convey the totality of the events as well as the broader implications for Americans both then and today, Grann lays out the narrative of the Osage murders across three chronicles. Grann paints a picture that marries the history of the Osage natives, the United States in the early 1920s, the history of private eyes, and the formation of the federal bureau of investigation. Such a portrait allows readers to clearly observe justice in the United States during the early twentieth century. Whether digging up new facts in the National Archives or explaining the history of private eyes, Grann challenges readers to see what the United States for what it is and was in order to better celebrate heroes, like Mollie Burkhart and Tom White, and to more accurately recognize villains, like William Hale. 

The book’s second chronicle concerns the evolution of investigatory processes in general and the formation of the FBI out of the existing Bureau of Investigation. This secondary plot is woven into the history of the Osage nation and is critical for two reasons. First, the discussions about changing procedures for investigating crimes or the ways that law enforcement agencies evolved productively expands the book’s reach, helping its story to appeal to readers who might be disinclined to read a book strictly about Native American history. Talking about the FBI’s birth enables Grann to share the book’s primary narrative with a wider array of readers. Grann also reveals the monumental significance of the Osage murders within a national framework, given that it is the Osage murders that Hoover uses as a vehicle to develop and to promote the struggling bureau of investigation. Second, and more importantly, Grann subtly establishes a parallel between J. Edgar Hoover and William Hale, similar men who are degraded by power and who oversee webs of influence. This comparison demonstrates that corruption can emerge anywhere, in small rural communities like Osage County or in the nation’s capital. The story of the Osage is especially horrific but cannot be understood as exceptional because similar stories play out whenever people are able to wield unchecked power. 

Another key concern related to narrative genre arises multiple times across the book, sometimes through references to novels or historical works, other times in citations from the headlines of newspapers or magazines from the 1920s. A work of literary nonfiction, the book experiments with perspective and style. Grann uses different modes of narration in each chronicle to reveal the events. When he talks about White’s investigation in the second chronicle, for example, Grann draws on the reports and interview transcripts that agents had to record, creating a link between White’s search for accuracy and the section’s omniscient style. In the first section, however, as Grann describes Mollie’s feelings, which have to be imagined from what little is left behind, the style reflects that of narrative nonfiction to paint a vibrant picture of Osage life and their feelings of terror and helplessness once the killings began. To achieve this, Grann incorporates elements of the mystery genre by establishing the problem, the murders, and delaying the resolution until toward the end of the second chronicle. In the final section, Grann switches to a first-person narrative, using his own quest for information to create narrative excitement and urgency. Here, readers learn that the second section’s conclusion leaves some mysteries unsolved and allows the thematic questions related to justice to linger. To unify the book’s events and overarching themes, Grann calls each section a “chronicle,” a term that stresses the narrative’s historical import and that stylistically mimics the transition from past to present. Even with its gestures to fiction and myth, Killers of the Flower Moon differentiates itself from retellings of the Osage slayings offered through poetry, ballet, and novel. As important as these works undeniably are, Grann’s focus, like White’s before him, is with fact.  

The centuries of racial prejudice that Native Americans have suffered at the hands of white settlers and, later, Americans, is an equally important element of the book. In the book’s middle chronicle, John Ramsey is quoted as saying that the two hundred years have made no difference in how white people view the indigenous tribes. In the Oklahoma of the 1920s, it is as easy to murder a Native American as it was in 1724. This establishes that biases that might seem to belong to the distant past are actually part of American’s recent history. Or, as the last chronicle implies, the present. There are no murders in the book’s last section, but the Osage community is said to have only recently (2011) won justice from the U.S. government for past abuses. There is a fluidity between past and present both in terms of ongoing racial injustice and the ways that earlier traumas continue to shape the lives of the tribal community. William Hale’s photograph is cut out of a picture from the 1920s, Grann explains, not because the Osage hope to forget but instead because the past is still too present for them. This, Grann’s book appears to argue, is a consequence of racial hatred, a force that upsets the relationship between past, present, and future in irreversibly destructive ways. As it shows the author searching for justice, Killers of the Flower Moon also makes a plea for a greater national commitment to community, one that that is inclusive, equitable, and receptive to all types of people, regardless of perceived differences.