Shell Games

This week I read about geoducks in Shell Games:  Rogues, Smugglers and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty by Craig Welch, an environmental writer for the Seattle Times.  If you are not shivering with anticipatory delight at the thought of an account of the illegal international trade of the world’s largest and most obscene burrowing clam, don’t despair.  I was indifferent myself until a friend who is an aggressive practitioner of readers’ advisory insisted I attend her book club, giving me two days to read the book.  As someone who indulges now and again in the guilty pleasure of detective novels I admit I was hooked when my proselytizing friend said, “It’s a cops and robbers with….” She said some other things as well but she had me at cops and robbers. Then the words “reads like a novel” passed her lips and well, I was already on chapter 3.   The book certainly is a way to get your crime fix from non-fiction though my friend overplayed the pacing element a bit.  The book gets mired down in details about the slimy underbelly of the black market bivalve but it is still a tale well-told and well-researched.

I have attended my friend’s book club a few times in the past and it is peopled with passionate and engaging shell and fin fish biologists, most of them employed by a local tribe (and one of them related to the colorful and shady lead informant in Shell Games).  With my background in literature and library science I stumble a step behind the conversation but always learn a great deal.  The group’s selection theme is “Oceans” and they lean heavily to nonfiction; this is a group that craves informative rather than lyrical or character-driven writing.  I once tried to mix it up with fiction by introducing them to The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett who can’t be beat for descriptive, lovely prose about science and scientists.  (And if you like what Barrett does so well, consider Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes, a book that proved to be a productive pick in a different group where the beauty of language was a driving force in selection.)

While reading Shell Games I realized how gratifying it is to read something that involves a setting with which I am intimately acquainted. I experienced the welcome glow of smugness as I pictured myself hunkered down with the wildlife detectives for a nocturnal sting operation near the familiar shadow of the Narrows Bridge – great fun. Setting is a powerful draw; the popularity of Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide indicates Puget Sound dwellers’ appetite for local tales.  This is also a story of the tireless and often thankless efforts of the police officers who are charged with enforcing regulations on wildlife.  The endless hours of information gathering that often go up in smoke leave you with a sense of the important but sometimes tragically futile work that engages these men and women.



About the Author:

MaryKate Perry lives, writes, and bakes in Olympia, Washington. See her at

1 Comment on "Shell Games"

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  1.' Shelley says:

    Geoducks! What a word!

    In another direction, I’d love to see a review of Sherman Alexie’s new short story collection here. I’ve just started it, and it strikes me as paydirt for a bookclub. I think he’s reached a new level: it has a sense of lightness, not heaviness.

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