A comprehensive and deeply satisfying exploration of that much-maligned creature, the snake, from herpetologist Greene (Univ. of Calif., Berkeley). Serpents have had a checkered history: They may have represented healing to the ancient Greeks and knowledge to the Incas, but for most folks they are appalling pictures of pure malevolence. It is Greene's mission to give the snake a public relations burnishing, to probe ``the beauty and intrigue of these animals against the backdrop of science,'' and he does so in detail, with style, aided and abetted by some 200 glorious, how'd-they-catch-that photographs from the Fogden husband-and-wife team. There is plenty here to engage the dedicated snake fancier-- on squamate hemipenises and undifferentiated maxillaries, behavioral ecology and biogeography. But Greene wisely enlivens his herpetological tale with stories from the field--dodging a viper's fangs as he reaches for its head, all the while knee deep in swamp muck--and fascinating sidebars on mimicry, blind snakes on the pheromone trail, snakes near extinction (such as the eastern Timber Rattlesnake), nomenclature (is it any wonder snakes get a bad rap with names like Death Adder, Black Halloween, and Eyelash Pitviper?)--tidbits that allow lay readers a chance to catch their breath. Greene closes with a call for snake conservation, in particular habitat protection, for many of these sedentary, finicky eaters are dependent upon unique, undisturbed landscapes that are currently under attack from developers. Emerging from this work is a creature less to be reviled than to be admired, demonstrating extraordinary evolutionary adaptability, fabulous variety, and spectacular coloration.