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A hometown Q&A

The Albany Times Union, my hometown newspaper, ran this Q&A May 14 about Stolen World and its denizens.


Weird but true. A new review.

I thought I'd reached the end of the free press road when Maclean's had this nice thing to say:

Little boys who chase snakes do not all grow up to be reptile smugglers. But, almost without exception, the “he-men” who deal in contraband cobras—no matter how gnarly their tattoos or greasy their ponytails—were once little boys who geeked out over snakes. It’s a quality that helped endear some otherwise slippery characters to Smith during the decade she devoted to researching Stolen World. Notorious snake rebels such as Hank Molt, Tom Crutchfield and Anson Wong were unflinchingly honest with the science reporter about how they lied to, swindled—and on occasion nearly killed—their customers, staff, wives and, most especially, each other. “The thing you have to understand,” Molt once told Smith, “is that we’re not good people.”

But neither were they particularly good at being “bad.” Molt and Crutchfield, frenemies who throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s smuggled the world’s rarest reptiles into the U.S. (fetching up to $12,000 a head), lost small fortunes thanks to greed, negligence and alcohol. Molt was gifted at rustling up financing and labour for hunting expeditions in Fiji and New Guinea, but repeatedly scuttled his own projects, usually trying to scam his partners. Crutchfield—who would have his young daughters taunt his pet crocodiles to see if the animals were nesting (if the crocs lunged at the girls, they were)—was sincerely offended by any rules he didn’t like.

But for all the snake smugglers’ posturing, their herpetophilia is 100 per cent genuine. Who but a true reptile-lover would ball up a six-foot python in the small of his back and tell airport security it was a tumour? Molt, now in his 70s, is planning a trip to the Philippines to see about a lizard. Smith once watched him sell a kid a turtle, his eyes lighting up as he explained the animal’s care. “You have the same obligation to a $5 animal as you do to a $5,000 animal,” Molt told her, in all earnestness.


Some Work in WSJ 

I've been writing book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement since 2007 and have done some really interesting pieces there, maybe 20 or so, and they're often exquisitely illustrated -- unfortunately TLS' closed subscription policy does not make it easy to re-post them, or I would. I have recently also begin reviewing for the Wall Street Journal's books section, which they're jazzing up of late -- here's one on turtle shells from March 2011, and another, from April, on ravens. A reader rightfully noted, with the latter, that ravens aren't birds of prey. But I don't write the headlines..  


OnEarth Reviews Stolen World

"Natural history had always been an outsourced business," writes Jennie Erin Smith in her deft new book, Stolen World. "Someone had to fill the cabinets of curiosity, to steal the world from the world and bring it back, or no one would believe it."

In the Old World, collecting was sometimes a conduit to establishment science (think Alfred Russel Wallace or Henry Bates). But in the New World, collecting more often fed Barnum-style shows that blended science and entertainment: the story of an acquisition often mattered more than the specimen itself. This maxim propels Stolen World, which chronicles the exploits of a dying breed -- not snakes, but the leather-skinned, gum boot–wearing, reptiles-in-the-socks smugglers who bring them home. Read more.


"Accomplished, Uproarious": The New Yorker

A nice little Briefly Noted review of Stolen World from the Feb. 28 edition:

This accomplished, often uproarious account of the international reptile trade features a low-rent criminal syndicate, bored investigators, compromised prosecutors, “wheeling and dealing” curators from major American zoos, and high-priced exotic fauna that comes to the United States in packages, luggage, or, in one case, hidden inside a prosthetic leg. Smith extends a tone of bemused skepticism to all parties, yet reserves a measure of sympathy for the book’s central figure, the improbably named Hank Molt, an obsessive, hapless smuggler, whose baroque schemes take him from the wilds of Papua New Guinea to seedy exposition halls in central Florida, and end with “friends turned adversaries, missing funds, dead snakes, undelivered merchandise.”