You undoubtedly know Jessica Speart as the author of the critically acclaimed and commercially popular Rebecca Porter series. It is not unusual at mystery conventions to see a line of loyal Speart and Porter fans bearing stacks of books with titles such as UNSAFE HARBOR and A KILLING SEASON, waiting patiently in line for Jessica's autograph. Her Rebecca Porter character is a feisty agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency (USFWA), so it is no surprise that WINGED OBSESSION, her new nonfiction offering, deals with Porter's real-world USWFA counterpart: a driven and determined agent named Ted Newcomer and his pursuit of a wildlife smuggler. The result is a tale as fascinating and riveting as Speart's works of fiction.
Newcomer is a new kid on the block with USFWA when he finds himself on the trail of Yoshi Kojima, a Japanese national who has a global reputation as the king of butterfly smugglers. Your initial reaction might be the same as mine: "Uh, so what?" WINGED OBSESSION answers that question. Point of information: I was not an environmentalist when I began reading the book, nor did I reach the end of it a convert to the cause. I do, however, detest 1) waste and 2) cruelty to animals. These conditions are part and parcel of the portion of the worldwide underground butterfly collecting community, which engages in the breeding, entrapment, sale and collection of endangered and/or protected butterflies. We are talking about far more than the neighborhood kid with the nylon net who catches and mounts the occasional butterfly; butterfly hunters come in all ages, nationalities, shapes and sizes, and their prey can be found at almost every corner of the earth, if only for a period of a few days or weeks each year and in the most remote locations. The amount of money that trades hands in exchange for the most sought-after members of the butterfly family is astounding, with collectors willing to pay unthinkable prices for certain specimens.
The scope of such collections, as described here, is jaw-dropping as well. Speart's accounts of some legendary collections are alone worth the price of admission to the book; there is at least one author whose work you will never read again without thinking about his warehouse. The risk, to both collector and seller, is minimal, unless one attracts the attention of an enforcement officer who is as obsessed with bringing such individuals to heel as a smuggler is in providing a favored customer with a rare treasure. Newcomer, as we come to see, is one such agent --- who plays a long-distance, undercover cat-and-mouse game with the erratic Kojima, whose bizarre behavior may be genuine, an affected eccentricity to throw off pursuit, or some combination of both.
The resulting account --- which follows Newcomer's first tentative steps toward establishing a relationship with the extremely strange Kojima, and continues with Newcomer bringing Kojima to heel in a very unexpected manner --- is as exciting and bizarre as one is liable to find in any work of fiction. Additionally, Speart gives her readers a peek into the mindset personality of the collector, sparks a guessing game as to the identity of a television idol, who may or may not be entirely what he seems, and even finds herself becoming a brief but extremely interesting part of the subject matter before book's end.
WINGED OBSESSION is one of those books you will not keep to yourself, but will instead pass on to friends and acquaintances of all philosophies. Again, the subject matter and Speart's presentation will not change a person's core beliefs, nor does it seem intended to do so. What it does demonstrate, among other things, is that there is no apparent boundary or limit to the bizarre field of human behavior.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 16, 2011