His bio reads like a spy novel. And if we don’t mention Bryan Christy’s past, then this article about an author who is a very recent transplant to the Eastern Shore just wouldn’t be complete.
There is a reason why Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, said he was a huge fan, referring to Christy as the modern-day Indiana Jones. As the founder and former head of Special Investigations at National Geographic and a National Geographic Society Rolex Explorer of the Year, Christy has a long and impressive history as a journalist who has gone around the world tackling some really tough stories on wildlife crimes. Stories he’s now fictionalized in his first novel In the Company of Killers.
It doesn’t hurt that just this past week, the NY Times listed the book as one of eight “Nail-biting, Nerve-shredding Novels That Will Keep You Up at Night,” calling his writing ‘muscular, vivid with a John le Carré-esque talent for thrusting us deep into unfamiliar territory .‘ It also helps that Christy himself looks like he could step out of the pages of his book to play the protagonist, Tom Klay, in a movie. But, mostly, the accolades are about the real-life work that’s led him to this time, this place, and this book.
Initially, although imagining himself as a novelist, Christy wasn’t ready to take the plunge. “So, like everybody who’s afraid to follow their writing dream,” he said, “I went to law school, where dreams of writing go to die. And I put it off and put it off and thought that moving a pen or typing on keys for a legal brief or Congressional briefing would be enough.” It wasn’t, and he quit international law in pursuit of something he could feel passionate about.
That passion led him to pursue a career in journalism–investigative journalism, to be more specific. Trained by an uncle who was an undercover FBI agent, Christy began tackling some impressive stories, one that led to him expose sham coin dealers. He soon realized that he could make the most significant contribution pursuing the “big guys who were exploiting the small guys, and the smallest ‘guys’ were wildlife animals.”
Christy spent the next few years on reptile trafficking, which led to his first book, The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers, a nonfiction account of the illegal exotic reptile business. What he found and reported on also resulted in the passage of new wildlife laws. The book was a success. So much so that some of the people responsible for making the hugely popular Netflix documentary, Tiger King, have also bought the rights to The Lizard King.
After the reptiles, Christy took on those responsible for the illegal elephant ivory and rhino horn trade. His reporting is credited with bringing about police raids on ivory shops in Vatican City and the collapse of the domestic ivory market in China. This work yielded Emmy nominated documentaries, feature films, and numerous awards. It also led to Christy’s arrest in Tanzania, where he was briefly held as a suspected ivory trafficker.
What Christy has done is, of course, both fascinating and heartbreaking, and we wondered how he was able to deal with the horrors of some of what he has seen. “I think it helps me having grown up in a funeral home,” he said. Oh yeah, there is that. Christy was an apprentice in the family funeral business, working for his father, a mortician. That experience has allowed him to compartmentalize and separate the task from the emotional side of what he’s doing.
So, all of this background became a backdrop to In the Company of Killers. In fact, the book blurb portrays Tom Klay as a “Celebrated wildlife crime reporter for an esteemed magazine.”
Describing his book, Christy says it’s about a troubled guy who manipulates people around him to get his stories. “He is tasked by the CIA to manipulate, in a very direct way, a woman with whom he has had a relationship with in the past. Deceiving her gave me an opportunity to explore male/female relationships and where truth and deception lie. And whether what he is doing is because it enhances his personal interest. And is he doing it because it’s his job to do it? And what will he commit himself to? Those are really fun things to explore.”
When asked if Tom Klay is autobiographical, Christy sidesteps the question, although admitting there are similarities: Klay had a much rougher childhood, whereas he had a great one, and pointing out that Klay’s mother died, while his own mother came for a visit from Annapolis a couple of weeks ago.
Of course, it is not the familial differences that we were interested in but the commonality between Klay and Christy. How much was made up? How much of it was true? “I’m going to continue to fictionalize my experiences,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have some extraordinary involvements with some really phenomenal people and some horrible, horrible people. And my approach to investigation was to build relationships with both of those kinds of people. That’s the beauty of fiction, you’re probing your subconscious as you’re writing, and some of that is my personality, and some of it is the personality of people I met.”
Perhaps there is a better explanation for why Christy feels the need to write. These remarkable experiences and the persistent actions he took to speak on behalf of those who have no voice have led to arrests, police raids, convictions, movies, stories, and even changes in the law.
“I’m trying to address issues,” he says, “that feel too complicated for people like ‘Oh, who am I to take that on?’ I asked myself that question, and I said, ‘screw it, I’m the guy. I’m going to do it.’ I didn’t know how to do it. But, I went after these things and got to make a difference.”
That is hugely important, he continued: “You know that if you ignore what you see as wrong because it doesn’t affect you, it will come around. It’s that adage: ‘I didn’t do anything because it didn’t touch me. And then, when it did, there was no one to help.’ I wanted to create a hero that took on these forces and helped.”
The hero, Tom Klay, will be back to help fight crime. Christy’s contract with the publisher is for two books. What will be the same is that he wants to write stories that his wife Jennifer, his muse, enjoys and approves. She’s his editor, he says and is merciless.
What is different this time is that he won’t be writing in the seclusion of the Catskill Mountains. Christy‘s move to the Eastern Shore gives him a new surrounding “Now I’m looking at the water, and we’re not isolated. I think it will affect the tone of the book.”
One thing we’re pretty sure of: just as Christy isn’t done with Klay, as long as there are bad guys doing horrible things to helpless animals, we’re not done with Christy, either. Not yet.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.