Like a Thief in the Night

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession
Susan Orlean

I sometimes think certain types of books should bear a slogan, like a genre film, or a police car. Something that tells you why the present item exists or what its purpose is.

For Susan Orlean that slogan might be to inform and entertain. There’s no doubt that Orlean knows how to spin a tale. She sets out, in this case, to tell the story of John Laroche, a gent who comes to her attention when he’s arrested with two Seminole Indians for poaching wild orchids in a Florida nature preserve known as the Fakahatchee Strand.

Laroche is a character in every sense of that word. Part polymath, part con man, he has all the energy of, well, a criminal. I should clarify that because I’m not sure that, strictly speaking, Laroche is a criminal. But the one thing I’ve noticed about criminals is they have enormous reserves of energy for doing whatever their particular crime is. So with Laroche. When seized by an idea he’s unstoppable.

There are really three tales told in this book. The primary one is Laroche’s attempts to clone an exotic orchid. I remember when orchid collectors were a certain type of character in a certain type of mystery. Generally a fop, typically wealthy in order to afford the greenhouses, always to be suspected, sometimes guilty. More recently, though,  orchids went mass market and there’s big bucks to be made if you have an exclusive.

That last bit is important and it’s what animates Laroche. Develop a new orchid and you have a 7-year or so lock on it because taht’s how long seeds take to germinate. Laroche intends to use advanced genetic recombination techniques to speed the cycle up and make millions. Laroche is always about making millions.

Millions in flowers? Therein lies the second tale, a broad look at the orchid-growing and collecting sub-culture of South Florida. There are more than a few millionaires in the orchid business and if they ever decide to remake Dynasty they could move it to Florida and use orchids as a backdrop. So you get to meet some of these entrepreneurs, see their shows and glimpse their lifestyles. Fair’s fair, though. When you stumble across a literature professor turned orchid grower you see the, ahem, roots of the obsession.

The third tale is Orleans own as she makes hew way through this human carnival. And this is the weakest part for me. I get that narrative journalism is often first person. John McPhee, for one, regularly includes dialog between him and his subjects. Tom Wolfe sometimes goes the participant observer route.

What I don’t get with either of them is the personal impact of what’s being told. Orlean dislikes Florida. I can’ t tell you what McPhee personally thinks about Wyoming, to use just one example. Wading in swamps grosses Orlean out. Do we know how a blazer-and-tie clad Wolfe feels  amidst a pickup truck full of hippies? You see my point.

Oddly, Orlean is one of my favorite writers in The New Yorker. In those shorter pieces the things that irk me must wind up on the cutting room floor. This is an incredibly personal reaction. You might read the book and never notice.

And if you do, I guarantee you’ll be informed and entertained.

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