Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World's Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler
By Jessica Speart
William Morrow, $25.99
Reviewed by TOM HENRY
As incredibly well researched as this book is, the thing that brings Winged Obsession to life is Jessica Speart’s delicious narrative.
The book reads more like a cat-and-mouse detective thriller from an expert storyteller, only it’s one of those plots in which, as Speart noted, truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Speart, an investigative reporter-author who has split her career between writing fictional mystery books and covering wildlife law enforcement, endangered species issues and the environment for major magazines, tackles this project with a combination of writer's grace and bulldog tenacity.
The story centers on the pursuit of Yoshi Kojima, a superstar in the surprisingly seedy world of butterfly smuggling. Kojima brazenly refers to himself as the “Indiana Jones of insects.”
Chasing him is rookie undercover agent Ed Newcomer, who homes in on his target through a combination of street smarts and high-tech savvy.
The tension Speart sets up makes for a near-obsessive read. She puts the reader in Newcomer’s shoes as the agent attempts to sell himself to Kojima as a young apprentice eager to offer his services while learning how to engage in the illegal trade of butterfly smuggling.
Newcomer finds the cunning Kojima is no easy prey. And Kojima, for his part, seems to get some odd gratification out of being the target of a hunt. Along the way, the reader is treated to the fascinating niche of butterfly smuggling. It's fascinating in the sense it is a rarely seen underworld.
Amazingly enough, there are some butterflies that sell on the black market for as much as $39,000. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the illegal butterfly trade to be worth $200 million a year, according to the book’s publicists.
Kojima had been one of the smuggling world's most elusive characters until his arrest a few years ago, yet he couldn’t resist the temptation of coming to Los Angeles and toying with Newcomer in 2006.
As Speart traversed the globe in pursuit of this story, she found herself a bit obsessed with the characters behind it, too. “The more I learned about Kojima, the more I wanted to know,” she said.
The book ends with a fascinating encounter Speart had with Kojima in his native country, Japan.
Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The (Toledo) Blade. He is a member of SEJ’s board of directors, on SEJournal’s editorial board and is SEJournal’s book editor.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2011-12. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.