Malaysia’s The Sun: Christy ‘Champion of the Reptile World’

What a generous title!  S. Indra Sathiabalan of The Sun and I sat down at a Starbuck’s in Kuala Lumpur for this interview.  Indra brought to our talk a sincere reading of the book and it was a great pleasure spending some time together.  I might quibble with some edges (and the photo–if I’m going to look like that anyway I ought to drink more whisky at breakfast) but I couldn’t be prouder that the book evokes comparison to Elmore Leonard all the way around the world and resonates with Malaysians who want to clean up the wildlife trade in their country.  Here is the story as it ran in hard copy:   champion-of-reptile-world and below sans photos (a technological glitch–really.).

Champion of reptile world

Bryan Christy weaves an interesting story about reptile smugglers and the dedicated law enforcement officers who go after them

By: S. Indra Sathiabalan (Wed, 28 Jan 2009)
has a funny way of coming full circle. As a young boy living in southern New Jersey, Bryan Christy had a fascination for reptiles. In fact, bringing a five-foot long King snake to school made him the most popular boy around.

Who knew that this childhood fascination would eventually lead him to write his first book, The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers.

Christy has previously worked as a morticians’ apprentice (his family business) and then later as a lawyer. He then started writing articles for Playboy Magazine and National Geographic. It was while researching for The Lizard King that Christy decided to give up his career as a lawyer and concentrate full-time as a writer.

Christy was in Kuala Lumpur recently on an invitation from MPH. One would think that he would have started writing his first book on the mortician business or even a legal thriller.

Christy said: “You don’t get to choose. I stumbled on the crime aspect of this story and thought that I used to care about this stuff (reptiles) and it used to be interesting to me and then I started to look into it.

“That’s when all my childhood memories started coming back and I felt like a kid again. Maybe if I planned it more, I would think I should write about the mortician thing.”

He is not discounting the fact that he might write about the world of morticians in the future but said that issues behind The Lizard King were fascinating.

The Lizard King touches on how smugglers employ every means possible to smuggle rare reptile and bird species across borders illegally.

The biggest perk is that it reaps as much profit as drug smuggling but when caught, the punishment is just a mere slap on the wrist as there are too many legal loopholes that these smugglers can use to escape persecution.

Even Malaysia is covered as one of the suppliers of rare and endangered reptiles with one of the key players running his lucrative business in Penang.

The book focuses on how special agent Chip Bepler of the US Fish and Wildlife Service pursues reptile smuggler Michael Von Nostrand and eventually brings him down.

Von Nostrand is depicted as a family man who took over his family business, Strictly Reptiles (which supplies reptile and creepy crawlies to zoos and pet shops), when his father landed in jail.

Bepler, on the other hand, is a dedicated enforcement officer who diligently pursues his quarry despite the numerous red-tape and legal loopholes that are thrown his direction. Unfortunately, Bepler passed away due to a rare form of brain cancer and Christy never got to talk to him.

It took three and a half years of research and about four months to write the book.

“I started reading criminal court files and looking at all the worst guys that have been arrested. Over and over again I kept seeing the name of this special agent (Bepler). So I said great, I will speak to the bad guys first and then this agent,” said Christy.

“When I stopped by his office and asked to speak to agent Bepler, they said he was dead. For me it felt like a loss because I had researched his work.”

One of the reasons Christy wrote The Lizard King in the style that he did was because he felt the loss of such a good enforcement officer and the fact that Bepler also left behind a young son

“His father was a hero and I was going to write this story so that he will know that.”

While researching for materials for The Lizard King, Christy had his own share of adventures or misadventures depending on how you look at it.

He was bitten between the eyes by a blood python; chased by an alligator; and sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula. However, this aspect of his investigations never made it into the book.

“The first draft was that story. My editor read it and said that is not what they want. They want the crime story and an objective story. I feel he was right because it was a strange story. If you told my story, it would dilute the strangeness of these people.”

Christy’s writing style reminds you a bit of Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) where even “the villains” are portrayed with a human face and not painted entirely black. It all goes back to Christy’s days as a mortician when he saw that even the nastiest person had grieving family or friends.

Christy is currently working on another book but won’t divulge much details other that it is not a sequel to The Lizard King.

This article was printed from Sun2Surf
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