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Winged Obsession by Jessica Speart: Book Review
As a brand-new undercover Fish and Wildlife agent, Ed Newcomer’s first case is to take down “the world’s most notorious butterfly smuggler.” This is a tall task considering how crafty, paranoid, and elusive Hisayoshi Kojima proves to be.
Winged Obsession starts out as an engaging crime story with a sympathetic protagonist and an unscrupulous villain. For most of the book, this true-crime tale is compelling. Newcomer learns how to be an undercover agent mostly on the fly, and some of his meetings can be suspenseful, especially because Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agents don’t carry firearms and rarely have backup. There are no car chases or explosions, but the cat-and-mouse game between the FWS agent and the smuggler as Newcomer is recruited to sell butterflies for Yoshi is often tense and exciting. Speart’s knack for describing butterflies (Bhutanitis lidderdali "is a showstopper, black bedecked with narrow ribbons of cream color. However, its real beauty lies in its hind wings, which are fringed with a series of pointed tails. The colors are the last gasps of a sunset, three white orbs, reminiscent of crescent moons, separated by bands of red and gold.") adds several nice passages to otherwise pedestrian prose. Sadly, the grind of real undercover work eventually drags down the plot. As Newcomer gains Yoshi’s friendship and trust, there is little Speart can do to make the phone calls and creepy Skype conversations less repetitive. Even the marital tension created by Newcomer’s hours during this period amounts to little more than treading water until the final showdown. After Newcomer and Yoshi's last meeting, Speart herself becomes involved in the story in a strange postscript that shows wildlife protection laws (and their enforcement) need to be improved on a global scale.
Newcomer believes catching Yoshi and putting him in prison could be the deterrent that curbs butterfly smuggling (and the killing of other endangered species). Unfortunately, bringing down Yoshi didn't really achieve what he had hoped. Yoshi served his sentence, got deported back to Japan, and resumed not only illegally selling and smuggling butterflies, but also trying to enlist Americans into selling butterflies for him. The potential of this high-profile case, catching a butterfly smuggler selling some of the rarest butterflies still in existence, was never realized. For the large sums of money Yoshi claims he made, a short prison sentence and fines that never had to be paid seem worth his miniscule risk of getting caught. The toothless laws against such crimes have yet to be strengthened to the point of deterring Yoshi or other from catching and selling endangered butterflies.