Will Byrnes's Reviews > Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World's Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler

Winged Obsession by Jessica Speart
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's review
Mar 15, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction, nature, science
Read from March 09 to 13, 2011

Jessica Speart, a mystery writer with ten novels to her credit, heard from a man in the Fish and Wildlife Service about the agency’s pursuit of one of the greatest smugglers of modern times, and decided to switch to non-fiction for once.

When it came to selling butterflies, particularly endangered species that were protected under international treaties, Yoshi Kojima was the big kahuna. If it existed, he could get it and he would be happy to sell it to you for an impressive mark-up. That he was a pathological liar and toted industrial-strength paranoia made him a difficult person to deal with and an almost impossible criminal to catch.

Ed Newcomer came to the Fish and wildlife Service relatively late. He had wanted to be a law officer since childhood, but had been unable to make the cut in his first few attempts. Bolstering his chances with a law degree and some years of legal practice, he finally made the grade in his late 30s, slipping in just before aging out. The Yoshi Kojima case fell into his lap as a likely loser, a turkey foisted on a rookie. It turned out he was the perfect man for the job.

Speart takes us through Newcomer’s experiences, how he learns through painful trial and error how to cope with his quixotic target. Newcomer is called upon to become an undercover agent for this assignment, making the job a 24/7 burden. It is a long and winding journey, with Kojima constantly foiling FWS expectations and plans. Newcomer, in his undercover persona, develops an odd relationship with Kojima, part business and part emotionally co-dependent. Newcomer was strained in his pursuit of Kojima by another case for which he was also working undercover. This one involves pigeon breeders who are killing protected hawks and falcons. Doing double-undercover work is no good thing for one’s home life. While Speart notes the difficulties of having to be available for one's cases 24/7, it seemed to me that she covered that at a surface level.

The book is an eye-opener about how little regard our legal system has for crimes of this sort. The biological heritage of the world is at stake but smugglers are subject to penalties that are often less than a traffic ticket. With millions of dollars to be made, such disincentives are hardly effective. The media has left these crimes mostly under-covered as well. There is considerable detail about how smugglers get their product past customs. It is depressingly simple.

Winged Obsession is a fascinating read. Speart brings her mystery-writer’s talent to the project, keeping her story moving and keeping tension high. I did find that it sagged a bit at times, particularly when Newcomer kept having to cover the same ground with Kojima. We, as readers, are stuck covering the same ground as well. Still, it worked pretty well overall, was informative, fast-paced and engaging. Would he or wouldn’t he snare Kojima in his net?
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