A richly detailed narrative of global malfeasance.




Freelance science reporter Smith debuts with an exciting tale of reptile smuggling.

During the Victorian era’s natural-history craze, British museums hired working-class freelancers to collect Asian wildlife specimens. Later, zoos in the United States turned to similar adventurers to obtain live animals. By World War II, the heyday of specimen collecting had ended. But that did not deter two young snake-smitten Americans, Hank Molt and Tom Crutchfield, from embarking on the colorful careers recounted here. For several decades, separately and together, they lied, cheated and skirted the law in an obsessive worldwide quest for rare species to sell to eager curators. Many of their best deals violated wildlife export bans and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. A former salesman taken from childhood by “the romance of the snake,” Molt began dealing in reptiles in the 1960s, when the animal trade was still little regulated. Working out of a Pennsylvania pet shop (with help from a crazy ex-con), then from a brick storefront called the Exotarium, he filled the wish lists of many zoos. Once, he created a fake research institute in New Guinea to procure lizards and pythons for the Knoxville Zoo. Federal officials pursued Molt, calling him “an agent of extinction” and the “kingpin” of a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring. In fact, he netted $39,000 in his best year. Smith describes Molt’s escapades as he travels around the world, using bribes, flattery and phony zoo uniforms, as needed, to acquire animals and get them safely past U.S. inspectors. In the ’80s, his Florida-based rival Crutchfield, inspired by the Southern snake men who supplied traveling carnivals, quit his own sales job and built a hugely successful reptile business. His 120-acre Herpetofauna compound included a barn the size of an airplane hangar filled with lizards, turtles and snakes. Narcissistic and violent, he eventually became down-on-his-luck Molt’s biggest buyer. Both men did time in prison, but kept coming back. “I’m addicted to drama,” said Molt.

A richly detailed narrative of global malfeasance.

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-38147-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Sept. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2010

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"There's got to be something wrong with somebody who'd do a thing like that." This is Perry Edward Smith, talking about himself. "Deal me out, baby...I'm a normal." This is Richard Eugene Hickock, talking about himself. They're as sick a pair as Leopold and Loeb and together they killed a mother, a father, a pretty 17-year-old and her brother, none of whom they'd seen before, in cold blood. A couple of days before they had bought a 100 foot rope to garrote them—enough for ten people if necessary. This small pogrom took place in Holcomb, Kansas, a lonesome town on a flat, limitless landscape: a depot, a store, a cafe, two filling stations, 270 inhabitants. The natives refer to it as "out there." It occurred in 1959 and Capote has spent five years, almost all of the time which has since elapsed, in following up this crime which made no sense, had no motive, left few clues—just a footprint and a remembered conversation. Capote's alternating dossier Shifts from the victims, the Clutter family, to the boy who had loved Nancy Clutter, and her best friend, to the neighbors, and to the recently paroled perpetrators: Perry, with a stunted child's legs and a changeling's face, and Dick, who had one squinting eye but a "smile that works." They had been cellmates at the Kansas State Penitentiary where another prisoner had told them about the Clutters—he'd hired out once on Mr. Clutter's farm and thought that Mr. Clutter was perhaps rich. And this is the lead which finally broke the case after Perry and Dick had drifted down to Mexico, back to the midwest, been seen in Kansas City, and were finally picked up in Las Vegas. The last, even more terrible chapters, deal with their confessions, the law man who wanted to see them hanged, back to back, the trial begun in 1960, the post-ponements of the execution, and finally the walk to "The Corner" and Perry's soft-spoken words—"It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize." It's a magnificent job—this American tragedy—with the incomparable Capote touches throughout. There may never have been a perfect crime, but if there ever has been a perfect reconstruction of one, surely this must be it.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 1965

ISBN: 0375507906

Page Count: 343

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1965

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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