You may have already noticed that Florida has a bit of a reptile problem.
Aside from the ubiquitous alligators in every retention pond and canal, there are anacondas and pythons invading the Everglades and Nile monitor lizards colonizing Cape Coral.
But Florida used to have another reptile problem: It was host to the largest reptile smuggling operation in the country.
In The Lizard King, writer Bryan Christy delves into the fascinating, improbable world of reptile smuggling, where profits can be as high as those for drug smuggling but where the penalties are mild, few and far between.
Smugglers ingeniously sneak in hundreds of snakes and rare turtles in their suitcases, tucked into pillowcases, socks, even in paper towel rolls. They smuggle baby pythons by snuggling them into their shorts or socks.
Next time you're in the customs line in the Miami Airport, the biggest entry point for smuggled reptiles, keep an eye out. The bulge in the pocket of the man in front of you might be a snakeskin wallet; then again, it might be a snake.
The Lizard King is full of enthralling, creepy and horrifying anecdotes. Christy slowly builds the tension between villains and hero, describing how Strictly Reptiles, an emporium for every kind of reptile known to man, grew to become a worldwide source for rare, endangered and often venomous reptiles.
Strictly Reptiles was run by Ray Van Nostrand and his son, Mike, out of Hollywood, Fla. They're larger-than-life characters who live by the creed that rules are meant to be broken.
Special Agent Chip Bepler of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the cop after them. Fish and Wildlife may be the redheaded stepchild of federal agencies, but Bepler is a knight errant, fighting for the endangered frilled dragons, poison dart frogs and venomous cobras that can't fight for themselves. He pursues the Van Nostrands over the course of five years, determined to stop them.
Christy's book will keep you up at night as you begin to see some of the world's most frightening creatures as victims instead of villains.
Tammar Stein, who lives in Florida, is the author of "High Dive," recently published by Knopf.