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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Mar 09, 2011

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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.

Shopping List - from an AP story on USA Today

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.

Jessica Speart

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 working undercover, a case involving pigeon breeders who are killing protected hawks and falcons. Doing double-undercover work is no good thing for one’s home life.

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. 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 is 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?

Posted – March 2011
Re-posted with updates – May 8, 2015

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

NPR interview with Newcomer

AP article on Newcomer taking down Hisayoshi Kojima - by Helen O’Neill

Another piece on Newcomer in Backpacker.com

July 10, 2017 - NY Times - A Mausoleum for Endangered Species: A warehouse in Colorado offers evidence of the immense demand for goods made from threatened and endangered animals. - by Rachel Nuwer
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08/27/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Rebecca (new) - added it

Rebecca Foster I had no idea butterfly smuggling was a thing! This sounds a bit like The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, a great book.

Will Byrnes The subject matter is indeed close, but the feel is quite different

message 3: by Kavita (new)

Kavita A very informative review! Must be hard work to catch and smuggle butterflies, especially if they are rare. But also, what a delightful line of work! If you can overlook the cruelty and possible extinction of rare species, that is. Working with butterflies just sounds so wonderful.

Will Byrnes As I imagine working with any endangered species might be

message 5: by Akudinobi (new) - added it

Akudinobi I Cant get to any of the books

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