The Falcon Thief

A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird

About The Book

A rollicking true-crime adventure about a rogue who trades in rare birds and their eggs—and the wildlife detective determined to stop him.

On May 3, 2010, an Irish national named Jeffrey Lendrum was apprehended at Britain’s Birmingham International Airport with a suspicious parcel strapped to his stomach. Inside were fourteen rare peregrine falcon eggs snatched from a remote cliffside in Wales.

So begins a tale almost too bizarre to believe, following the parallel lives of a globe-trotting smuggler who spent two decades capturing endangered raptors worth millions of dollars as race champions—and Detective Andy McWilliam of the United Kingdom’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, who’s hell bent on protecting the world’s birds of prey.

The Falcon Thief whisks readers from the volcanoes of Patagonia to Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, and from the frigid tundra near the Arctic Circle to luxurious aviaries in the deserts of Dubai, all in pursuit of a man who is reckless, arrogant, and gripped by a destructive compulsion to make the most beautiful creatures in nature his own. It’s a story that’s part true-crime narrative, part epic adventure—and wholly unputdownable until the very last page.

Excerpt

Chapter One: The Airport ONE THE AIRPORT
The man had been in there far too long, John Struczynski thought. Twenty minutes had elapsed since he had entered the shower facility in the Emirates Lounge for business and first-class passengers at Birmingham International Airport, in the West Midlands region of England, 113 miles north of London. Now Struczynski stood in the corridor outside the shower room, a stack of fresh towels in the cart beside him, a mop, a pail, and a pair of CAUTION WET FLOOR signs at his feet. The janitor was impatient to clean the place.

The man and a female companion had been the first ones that day to enter the lounge, a warmly decorated room with butterscotch armchairs, a powder-blue carpet, dark wood columns, glass coffee tables, and black-shaded Chinese porcelain lamps. It was Monday, May 3, 2010—a bank holiday in the United Kingdom—and the lounge had opened at noon to accommodate passengers booked on the 2:40 p.m. Emirates direct flight to Dubai. The couple had settled into an alcove with a television near the reception desk. Minutes later the man had stood up and headed for the shower, carrying a shoulder bag and two small suitcases. That had struck Struczynski as strange. Who brings all of his luggage into the business-and-first-class shower room? And now he had been in there two or three times longer than any normal passenger.

A tall, lean man in his forties with short-cropped graying hair and a brush mustache, Struczynski had spent a decade monitoring 130 closed-circuit television cameras on the night shift at a Birmingham shopping mall, a job that “gave me a background in watching people,” he would later say. That February, after the security firm laid him off, a management company had hired him to clean the Emirates Lounge. The first week he was there, the contractor enrolled him in an on-site training course to identify potential terrorist threats. The course, he would later say, heightened his normal state of suspicion.

As Struczynski puttered around the hallway, the shower room door opened, and the passenger—a balding, slender, middle-aged white man of average height—stepped out. He slipped past Struczynski without looking at him.

The cleaner opened the shower facility door and looked around the room.

My goodness, he thought. What do we have here?

The shower floor and glass partition surrounding it were both bone-dry. All the towels remained stacked and neatly folded. The toilet for the disabled hadn’t been used. The washbasin didn’t have a drop of water in it. Though the man had been inside the room for twenty minutes, he didn’t appear to have touched anything.

Struczynski recalled the terrorism workshop that he had taken three months earlier, the exhortations from the instructor to watch out for odd looks and unusual behavior. This passenger was up to something. He knew it. Not sure what he was looking for, he rifled through the towels and facecloths, rummaged beneath the complimentary toothpaste tubes and other toiletries, checked the rubbish bin. He mounted a footstool and dislodged two ceiling tiles, wedging his hand into the hollow space just above them. Nothing.

He shifted his attention to the baby-changing area. In the corner of the alcove stood a plastic waist-high diaper bin with a round flip lid. Struczynski removed the top and looked inside. He noticed something sitting on the bottom: a green cardboard egg carton.

In one of the middle slots sat a single egg, dyed blood-red.

He stared at it, touched it gently. What could it mean?

He recalled the recent arrest at Heathrow Airport outside London of a man trying to smuggle rare Indian box turtles in egg cartons. But that seemed so odd. More likely this passenger was moving narcotics—like the gangsters in Liverpool who wedged packets of heroin and cocaine inside plastic Kinder Egg containers. That’s it, he thought. It must have something to do with drugs.

Struczynski approached the reception area, a few steps from where the man and his traveling companion were sitting, and spoke softly to the two women working at the front desk. We may have a problem, he murmured, describing what he had just observed. He suggested that they call airport security, then returned to the shower and locked the door so that no one could disturb the evidence. Soon two uniformed security men entered the lounge, interviewed Struczynski, and examined the shower. The facility couldn’t be seen from the alcove in which the passengers were sitting, and so, absorbed in conversation, the couple failed to notice the sudden activity.

The security guards summoned a pair of airport-based plainclothes officers from the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit. Formed in 2007 in the wake of the London bus-and-underground bombings, the unit had grown from seventy to nearly five hundred officers, and was chiefly concerned with combating Islamist extremism. Counterterrorism forces had recently arrested a gang that had conspired to kidnap and behead a British officer and post the footage online, and had helped foil a plot by a Birmingham-born terrorist to blow up transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives. These men, too, questioned Struczynski, examined the egg box in the diaper bin, and asked the janitor to point out the passenger. They flashed the badges attached to lanyards around their necks, and chatted with him and his companion politely. Struczynski watched discreetly as the pair stood up and, flanked by the police, exited the lounge.

As hundreds of people hurried past them to their gates, the Counter Terrorism agents turned the woman over to colleagues and led the man into a small, windowless room near a security checkpoint. Several other officers squeezed into the space. The police asked the passenger to sit down at a table, and informed him that they would be questioning him under schedule seven of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allowed them to detain him for up to twenty-four hours without a lawyer.

“Are you carrying any sharp objects?”

“No,” he said, turning his pockets inside out.

“May we see your airline ticket and travel documents?”

The passenger presented an Irish passport identifying him as Jeffrey Paul Lendrum, born in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, on October 26, 1961. He was traveling economy gold class in seat 40F on flight EK040 on his Emirates Skywards frequent flyer miles, arriving in Dubai at twelve-fifteen in the morning local time after a nearly seven-hour flight. Then he had a fourteen-hour layover before catching a connecting Royal Emirates flight to Johannesburg at two-thirty in the afternoon. It seemed a roundabout way to travel to South Africa: a journey of more than thirty hours, as opposed to a twelve-hour direct flight from the United Kingdom. Stapled to his boarding pass were baggage-claim stubs for four pieces of luggage, including a mountain bicycle.

A search of his hand luggage turned up an assortment of unusual gear: insulated hot-cold thermal bags, a Leica viewing scope, a thermometer, binoculars, a GPS system, a walkie-talkie, and a golf ball retriever, which used telescopic extensions to stretch up to seventeen feet. Lendrum carried plenty of cash: £5,000, $3,500 in US dollars, and some South African rand. He also had two more egg cartons. The first was empty. The other was filled with ten quail eggs—tiny white orbs with black speckles, about one-quarter the size of a hen’s. Lendrum presented a receipt from Waitrose, the British supermarket chain, and explained that he was carrying farm-fresh organic eggs back home, because they were hard to find in Johannesburg.

The police ordered Lendrum to strip to his underwear.

Lendrum unbuttoned his shirt and slipped out of it. He stood there, arms at his sides, a blank expression on his face.

The agents stared.

Ribbons of white surgical tape were wrapped around his abdomen. Tucked snugly beneath the tape were one green, one black, and one blue woolen sock. Plastic zip ties divided each sock into five segments, and inside each segment was an oval-shaped object. The police unwrapped the surgical tape, removed the socks, cut off the ties, and, one by one, extracted the contents. They laid fourteen eggs gently on a table.

They were slightly smaller than ordinary hens’ eggs, ranging in hue from marbleized brown to dark red. One was pale, with chocolate speckles; another had a background of caramel, bruised with plum-colored blotches. Yet another, all brown archipelagoes and continental landmasses juxtaposed against bright red lakes, gulfs, and seas, resembled high-resolution telescopic images of the surface of Mars. None of the police had ever seen anything like them.

“What kind of eggs are these?” an officer asked Lendrum.

“They’re duck eggs,” he replied.

“What were you planning to do with them?”

“Well, actually,” he said, “I was taking them down to Zimbabwe, where my father lives.” He was going to play a trick on the old man, he explained, hard-boiling every egg but one, and then getting a good laugh when his unsuspecting father cracked them all open.

“Why were you hiding them on your body?”

He was suffering from spinal problems, he explained, and his physiotherapist had recommended that he carry raw eggs strapped to his abdomen. Wearing the fragile objects against his belly would force him to keep his stomach muscles taut, he said, and strengthen his lower back.

The police officers exchanged incredulous looks.

This one, they realized, was entirely out of their league.

About The Author

Cordula Krämer

Joshua Hammer is the New York Times bestselling author of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. He has written for The New York Times MagazineGQSmithsonianThe AtlanticThe New YorkerNational Geographic, and Outside. He lives in Berlin.

Why We Love It

“Josh Hammer has a talent for finding real-life characters whose heroics—or treachery—really belong in novels. Like his previous book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, this story pits two obsessive men—a falcon thief and an affable cop—against each other. I love this story because it reads like a thriller, and because in racing through the pages, the reader ends up learning about everything from the ancient art of falconry to the history of wildlife policing. It’s a smart and entertaining dive into obscure corners of culture and crime—and the good guy wins in the end!” —Priscilla P., VP, Executive Editor, on The Falcon Thief

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 11, 2020)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501191886

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Raves and Reviews

The Falcon Thief practically begs for comparison to Susan Orlean’s 1998 classic The Orchid Thief... After reading this book, one feels sympathy for both the falcon and bustard, and none at all for egg poachers like Lendrum or the falconers who keep them in business.”
— Wall Street Journal

“Joshua Hammer’s gripping The Falcon Thief plunges us into the psyche of the wildlife thief and smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum... With the instinct of a hunter himself, Hammer tracks Lendrum’s nefarious career, structuring the story with elegant precision... The suspense and drama leading up to Lendrum’s ultimate undoing are masterfully constructed and the outcome satisfying.”
— New York Times

“Reading The Falcon Thief, one thinks of Truman Capote, who elaborated on a tiny news story... 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.”
— Christian Science Monitor

"Joshua Hammer has that rare eye for a thrilling story, and with The Falcon Thief he has found the perfect one— a tale brimming with eccentric characters, obsession, deception, and beauty. It has the grip of a novel, with the benefit of being all true."
— David Grann, New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost Citz of Z

"I love this book. Josh Hammer has an amazing ability to find truly great yarns, and he's done this again with The Falcon Thief.  It is a tremendous relief to read a book that teleports you out of current politics into a wholly new world that is both magical and thrilling and weird and wholly unknown. Stop, sit, read, think, savor, enjoy."
— Janet Reitman, bestselling author of Inside Scientology 

“Middle Eastern Sheiks. 180 mph apex predators. An agile and fearless, globe-trotting obsessive dangling beneath helicopters and slipping through borders from Patagonia to the high Arctic. The Falcon Thief is more than just a ripping page turner; it is a cautionary tale about what happens when our most precious wildlife becomes status symbol in our diminishing natural world.”
— Carl Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Wild Men of Borneo and Savage Harvest

“You don’t need to know, or care, about birds to enjoy The Falcon Thief.  I couldn’t tell a jaybird from a jaywalker, but I loved this book: an international, ornithological whodunit. By the final page, I had learned, and cared, more about the secret world of falcons and the people who love them than I ever thought possible.”
— Eric Weiner, The New York Times bestselling author of The Geography of Genius

“This book moves like a falcon: sleek and fast. It’s an absorbing story of a thief, an obsession, and an astounding bird.”
Russell Shorto, New York Times bestselling author of Revolution Song and The Island at the Center of the World

"Hammer is one of our great non-fiction storytellers, and he's got a terrific one here: a true crime saga about how love of nature can go very, very wrong."
— Bruce Handy, author of Wild Things

“[A] well-written, engaging detective story that underscores the continuing need for conservation of rare bird species… A sleek, winning nonfiction thriller.”
— Kirkus (starred review) 

"Hammer delivers a vivid tale of obsession and international derring-do… this swashbuckling account should hold its audience rapt until the very end."
— Publishers Weekly

"Hammer paints a vivid portrait . . . 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."
Bookpage

"This stranger-than-fiction story is as engrossing as a fast-paced action-adventure, and is sure to hold the attention of a variety of readers. Fans of Jennie Erin Smith’s Stolen World or Craig Welch’s Shell Games will be piqued." 
— Library Journal

“Hammer's chronicle is a captivating and surprising read with just the right touch of suspense and mystery.”
— Booklist

"Slipping as perfectly into the newly developing natural history-true crime subgenre as it does into a carry-on, The Falcon Thief both informs and thrills."
— Open Letters Monthly

“Startling from the first page to the last.”
— Air Mail

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