Some of the best nonfiction in recent years has come from writers following a small, niche story until the vast, complicated back story becomes clear -- at which point the writer falls into a rabbit-hole of deceit, greed and machinations worthy of the finest hard-boiled detective fiction.
Seattle Times writer Craig Welch's "Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature's Bounty" neatly represents this genre of "you can't make this stuff up" drama; one could refer to it as "crime and naturalists" and nod knowingly when Susan Orlean's "Orchid Thief" is referenced.
The story in this case involves a familiar trope -- rare items and the criminal networks that love them -- presented with some less familiar players. The giant mollusk known as the "geoduck" (pronounced "gooey duck") is extremely rare, found in the ocean waters of Washington's Puget Sound. The wealthy and unscrupulous gourmands of the world will pay vast amounts of money for geoducks. The law officers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are charged with enforcing strict regulations involving the harvesting of geoducks, to maintain safety for consumption as well as to enforce limits on overfishing.
The third element at work is the black market for geoducks, and it goes without saying that, over the course of the book, the police are astonished more than once to discover that they are only scratching the surface; what seems like a straightforward investigation becomes a wonderland of undercover informants, crosses and double-crosses, wires, corrupt officials and, of course, "the one that got away."
What differentiates this work is the research that went into it. Anyone can throw together a rough-and-tumble grizzled law enforcement team with criminals trafficking in oddly desirable items, but Welch does the homework involved to make this work stand out.
It's clear before you reach the 30 pages of notes and references that a great deal of research, interviewing and time went into presenting the details of this story. It references other similar cases, the history of "naturalist law enforcement," the environmental science -- providing a rich layer of detail that informs but does not slow down the cops and robbers adventuring. If anything, it brings a sense beyond the money, beyond the environmental impact, of why an enormous mollusk comes to muddy the waters of so many people's lives.