By Jennie Erin Smith

Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis

Status, whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, is important in life.   Status is an unspoken, yet universally recognized, form of competition.  Status may be derived from any number of things, including how much money one has, what kind of car one drives, and what brand of clothing one wears. And each and every subculture within a culture has its own particular system of status. 

For example, a few years ago, status among Roman Catholic priests was determined by cuff links.  The fancier the cuff links, the higher the status.  Right now, among fourteen-year-males in Chicago, status may be gained or lost based on the brand of shoes worn.  Vans convey status, as do DC shoes and the Etnies brand.  Nike athletic shoes are totally cool, whereas Reeboks are not. 

This state of affairs is omnipresent, touching every facet of life, even, as strange as it may seem the bizarre world of smuggling.  And not just any old smuggling, either.  To be precise, the secretive subculture known as illegal reptile smuggling.  Which, by the way, is extremely lucrative for those participants who are successful.

Two of the most successful reptile smugglers were Hank Molt and Tommy Crutchfield.  Their felonious careers are the topic of Jennie Erin Smith’s new book called Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skullduggery. 

Hank Molt grew up fascinated by reptiles.  Later, bored by his life as a cheese salesman, Molt decided to reinvent himself.  He became a reptile smuggler, traveling around the world to collect rare specimens for zoos. 

Molt’s competition was Tommy Crutchfield, who was a former gator wrestler turned carpet salesman from Florida.  Both Molt and Crutchfield wanted to be the best and the most famous in their area of illicit endeavor.  So they forged, impersonated, stole, and betrayed to attain their goal. 

Aiding and abetting the two smugglers were the zoos, which, in their desire to be foremost amongst zoological institutions, lusted after the rarest specimens in the world.  Since Molt and Crutchfield supplied what they wanted, the zoos entered into what has to have been one of the most extraordinary and irregular of relationships in the history of relationships with the smugglers.  A weird kind of passive-aggressive co-dependency.  On the one hand, the zoos paid top dollar for the objects of their lust, looking the other way as money changed hands.  On the other hand, the zoos simultaneously testified against the smugglers in court. 

Eventually of course, Molt and Crutchfield ended up doing stints in prison for violating the Endangered Species Act.  Yet the imprisonment had no effect.  Neither man learned his lesson.  Instead, when released from prison, they went right back to smuggling.  In fact, they took more and greater risks than before.  It was almost as if prison re-energized them.  

What makes Stolen World so interesting is not simply the recounting of what two world-class smugglers did.  Rather it is Smith’s examination of the two men’s psyches.  Smith tries to get a handle on what drove Molt and Crutchfield to do what they did.  In the end, it appears that Molt and Crutchfield were modern day pirates, who, instead of attacking and looting ships, roamed the world, collecting exotic lizards and snakes for fun and profit.  In other words, it was the excitement, the challenge, and the adventure of what they did that motivated them.

However, that explanation is more than a little suspect.  For the two smugglers were more than thrill seekers caught up in the kick provided by jetting to exotic locales, outwitting the authorities, and making oodles of cash.  In reality, it’s much more likely they were compulsive-obsessive monomaniacs.  In other words, Molt and Crutchfield were bonkers. 

Which probably goes a long way toward explaining why Stolen World is so darn entertaining.  It’s fun to read about monomaniacs.

It’s obvious that Smith spent copious amounts of time interviewing Molt and Crutchfield.  And that both men opened up to her is not surprising for a couple of reasons.  One, most people love to talk about themselves and what they’ve done, and believe that their stories are unique.  No one would argue that Molt and Crutchfield are common, bland, and boring.  Two, and probably more importantly, when Molt and Crutchfield exposed the details of their criminal exploits, it was a kind of affirmation.  Confession equaled affirmation.  The two smugglers were underwriting, in a round about way, the idea that they had not wasted their lives, that adventure was worth losing everything for.

Sadly, though, the attempted affirmation is not convincing.  For even now, Molt and Crutchfield continue to scheme and plot and plan their next escapades.  Neither man can shake off his mania.

Stolen World is a worthwhile read.