Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Greed and the Problem of American Ideals 

Since the nation’s earliest days, Americans have valued stories of self-made individuals, admiring the tenacious ambition and social fluidity that allowed people to rise from rags to riches. But, as Killers of the Flower Moon makes clear, these valued qualities were not inalienable and gave rise to a murderous sense of individual entitlement and toxic greed, the consequences of which were projected against indigenous natives and other non-European groups. The clearest example of this is William Hale, who suggested after his conviction this his behavior was merely business. His early life is a testament to his worth ethic, but the same principles seemingly led him to believe he had the right to do anything to advance his own interests. J. Edgar Hoover, too, has similar traits, and the two figures are parallels to one another. Like Hale, Hoover begins with laudable ambitions, but, over time, they become increasingly self-serving and problematic as he uses his position to portray an image and to elevate his position rather than reveal the full truth of events. The end of Hoover’s tenure at the FBI is referenced briefly in Killers of the Flower Moon, but the men’s shared qualities indicate the problems pervasiveness.  

The book references newspaper accounts from the period, and, through them, readers can see that the belief that the Osage’s wealth was unearned—and thus problematic—was widely shared. This too is a way that the celebration of the self-made individual shapes this history. The belief that the Osage are not aware of how to manage their wealth and that they are profligate supports the self-serving argument for the guardianship arrangements. Jealousy also shapes this situation. Racism lends fuel to what is presented as an assumption widely shared across the nation that something must be done to control the Osage’s wealth. In complaints about the Osage’s luck, there is no mention made of how they had been previously defrauded, nor of the poverty and hardship they endured prior to discovering oil on the land they selected to evade American greed. With the story of the landgrab on the Cherokee Outlet, as in the story of the Osage murders, Grann reveals how entitlement and greed shaped the relationship between the Native and white Americans. 

The Struggle for Justice  

Justice emerges as a theme in Killers of the Flower Moon in multiple ways, most importantly as a system and as a set of philosophical values about how to treat people. No matter how justice is understood, however, the Osage people do not receive just treatment. The regular racism they endure, which is presented both as part of their history with the U.S. government and as a feature of the murders that are the book’s main subject, create inequities that force the Osage to fight for their basic rights and human dignity. Although their suffering is central in the book, the problems with justice are pervasive. The irony of this is revealed when Grann notes that in the early 1920s the Department of Justice was known as the Department of Easy Virtue. The phrase “easy virtue” refers both to sexual immodesty (being “easy”) and to the practice of choosing what is easy or convenient (covering up scandals or letting things slide) over more rigorous principles, like honesty and integrity. 

The book’s middle section is most obviously focused on justice, as its action takes place in the criminal justice system, moving from investigation to prosecution and then punishment. Tom White, a man regularly described as full of integrity, undertakes the work of seeking the wrong-doers and finding a way to bring them to justice. His doubled task is emblematic of the book’s nuanced approach to justice. It is not sufficient to gather appropriate evidence to convict the guilty, although White does in part accomplish this, but it is also necessary to navigate the ways that the system of justice is open to manipulation through jury tampering and witness intimidation. To bring William Hale and his associates to justice, White must protect the halls of justice from their corruption. At the same time, he must combat the racism that allows white men to believe that it is unjust to convict another white person for killing a Native American person. 

The assumption that people have different intrinsic values and aptitudes, ironically, is part of an older model of justice, one that was common for centuries and that shaped both the U.S. government’s policy toward the indigenous population and that was used to justify enslavement, unequal treatment for women and other groups. According to this way of thinking, it was unfair to grant people rights and responsibilities they would be unable to manage. This seemingly unusual idea of justice underwrites the rationale that resulted in the Osage’s forced guardianship arrangements. The fact that this outdated model of justice is as liable to manipulation and abuse as are the more familiar ideas and practices shows the fragility of institutions charged with protecting our basic rights.  

Creating and Eroding Trust 

Because conspirators manipulate evidence and lie systematically, they erode trust by making it difficult to differentiate truth from fiction. This is a situation that confronts the Osage in Killers of the Flower Moon, who not only grow wary of the American government but who also become unsure of their previous relationships. Because he promised to help find Anna’s killer, Mollie believed Hale’s assurance that he was a friend to her family and the Osage people, but the opposite turns out to be true. A different version of the same trust issues confronts White, who must distinguish between fact and hearsay to solve the crimes. 

Indeed, conspiracies can be even more devastating because they use trust as a tool of control. Mollie is slow to realize Ernests’s involvement with the murders because she loves her husband and trusts his word and actions. Even after evidence shows his complicity, she justifies or excuses his actions. Just as White must sort fact from fiction, so too must Mollie realize how her trust has been used against her. As the book’s third section makes clear, there are lasting implications to fundamental betrayals, such as the Osage endured. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the murdered people still find themselves unsure about how to move through a world revealed to be fundamentally hostile. Killers of the Flower Moon uses the theme of trust to clarify not only political or legal situations but also the ongoing personal harms they can create.