Jamie James has written a respectful biography of Joe Slowinski, a passionate and perhaps obsessive herpetologist who was fatally bitten by a many-banded krait while on an expedition in Burma. Slowinski was only 38 and his accomplishments gave every indication that he had a distinguished career ahead of him, if his often difficult personality didn’t alienate his colleagues. His fascination with dangerous snakes, however, made the manner of his death near-inevitable.
The book proceeds methodically through Joe’s life, detailing the hyper-masculine world of herpetology along the way. It also focuses on Burma, a place that Slowinski had a particular affection for. Foreign scientists face a dilemma if they want to conduct research in this country. Do they acquiesce to the government in the name of ground-breaking research, and do they risk the dangers? With many potential discoveries to be made, personal egos remain bound to scientists’ decisions – as was Slowinski’s.
James continues his stubbornly slow pace while describing Slowinski’s final mission, his fatal bite, and the desperate struggle to keep him alive. This increases the tension and makes the latter part of the book the most readable. James’ careful establishment of Slowinski’s teammates’ personalities helps give impact to their behaviour during and after those terrible hours.
The Snake Charmer is an unassuming and not often deeply involving read, with the diffcult Slowinski himself not helping to charm the reader. However, the involvement of some of his friends and family makes it feel quite personal. And although he keeps the tone quiet and detached, James’ respect and liking for Slowinski and his life, accomplishments, and ideals permeates the book.