South Florida Sun-Sentinel: “Christy tells the story masterfully, with a novelist’s control and sense of scene.”

David Fleshler (if there’s a better name for a reviewer of this book I don’t know it) gives an exciting review of TLK today, including another favorable comparison to the writing of Elmore Leonard.  I heard Leonard speak once and was taken with his rifle barrel approach to story.  Simple and straight, a bullet in one end and out the other.  It’s the same way my Dad used to tell stories, and my Irish grandfather.  Fleshler writes with a similar no bullshit street-edge that makes the review fun to read.  I like the phrase ‘bureaucratic heroism’…    

Nonfiction review: ‘The Lizard King’ by Bryan Christy

 By David Fleshler
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
September 21, 2008

Florida’s rich literature of true crime just grew richer with the publication of Bryan Christy’s The Lizard King, a tale of snakes in suitcases, shadowy Malaysian smugglers and driven law enforcement agents. 
Meet Mike Van Nostrand, the 350-pound owner of Strictly Reptiles, a Hollywood company that caters to the surprising demand in the United States for ball pythons, Indian Star tortoises and boa constrictors. A hot-tempered loudmouth, he drives a pickup equipped with a train horn, used to scare his neighbors in a gated community near Brian Piccolo Park.
Out to nail Van Nostrand for wildlife smuggling is an officer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named Chip Bepler. In contrast to Van Nostrand, who sees wildlife as just another thing to buy and sell, Bepler grew up with a conservation ethic soaked into his bones. As a child, he practiced catch-and-release fishing. Assigned to the agency’s office in Miami (“like Siberia with mosquitoes and paperwork”) he becomes convinced Van Nostrand is bringing in reptiles illegally caught in the wild and sets out to take him down.


Anyone who has dealt very much with government environment officials knows there are some who see the job as just a job, doing what they can to avoid jeopardizing their position in the bureaucracy. Others see it as a calling and risk ridicule or opposition from superiors as they pursue their work. Bepler and the lawyers he works with fall into the second category. There is a bureaucratic heroism here, of wildlife agents and prosecutors who refuse to accept the judgment of colleagues that pursuing despoilers of the environment is less important than pursuing John Gotti.


Bepler pursues Van Nostrand, as Van Nostrand pursues rarer and more expensive snakes and turtles and lizards. We go with Van Nostrand to Malaysia to meet Anson Wong, the cheerfully sociopathic exporter who dominates Southeast Asia’s wildlife trade, a man who can supply anyone with snow leopards, panda skins or stuffed tigers. We see the smugglers game the wildlife-protection laws, forging paperwork to make it appear that illegally caught animals were bred legally in captivity.


Christy tells the story masterfully, with a novelist’s control and sense of scene. He gains access to all sides in the story, set mainly in the mid-1990s. Most impressively, he gains access to Van Nostrand, a man wary of writers after years of being trashed in the newspapers, and the details of Van Nostrand’s business and personality are what make this book so hard to put down. Christy immerses himself in the wildlife trade, but never lets the material overwhelm him, writing a tight, focused, gripping story. He writes with a laconic humor that recalls Elmore Leonard.


The one flaw is the lack of emphasis on the harm caused by the wildlife trade. Christy clearly finds Van Nostrand a colorful, entertaining fellow, and is obviously delighted to have gained access to him. But any sense of moral outrage is missing, despite the damage caused by the illicit wildlife business. Burmese pythons, released as unwanted pets, are now breeding in the Everglades, fouling up an ecosystem that really didn’t need more problems. Animals routinely die in transit of heat or cold or thirst. In one sickening scene, a rare exception to the book’s failure to show the impact on wildlife, Bepler finds a van near Miami filled with 200 dead boa constrictors (not connected to Van Nostrand), filled with cocaine, their anuses sewed shut, some of the snakes still writhing as they bleed from both ends.


This is still an outstanding book, one that reads like a thriller but transmits a lot of information about how smugglers work and how a few individuals in government overcome their own bureaucracies to fight them.


David Fleshler can be reached at or 954-356-4535.










Copyright © 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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