Reviewed by Ben S.
Remember “e”? Remember the 90’s and early 00’s, when Ecstasy was plastered all over the newspaper and television media, billed as the drug menace du jour? Pop culture has always overlapped heavily with drug culture, and in the late 90’s, Ecstasy was at the center of both. Like cocaine in the 80’s, Ecstasy had its’ moment in the limelight, and eventually took its’ place in the cosmopolitan of American pop culture. Chemical Cowboys is the story of how Ecstasy came to prevalence, and, ultimately, how law enforcement reacted to stem the import and circulation of “kiddie dope.”
Chemical Cowboys reads like that which it professes to be – a thoroughly-researched and intricately-woven account of lawmen versus the outlaws. There are few surprises here – we all know how things will end up; it’s the getting there that makes the book fun and worthy of a read.
While there are many characters in the story, and relatively little character development, one must remember that this is not a tale of emotions and introspection. This is the true story of the rise of Ecstasy to near-glamour-drug status, and with it the emergence onto the international stage of a relatively new crime syndicate – the Israeli mafia. Even more so, this is the story of the DEA becoming aware of the rising popularity of Ecstasy, and struggling to find its’ footing on unfamiliar ground; trying to contain the import and sale of a drug about which it had very little prior knowledge.
What starts off as a chance encounter between an informant and two ecstasy dealers grows over years into a multinational anti-drug operation, garnering unprecedented cooperation between American and Israeli law enforcement. The story’s protagonist is Special Agent Robert Gagne of the New York Field Department, who must balance a desire for the demanding and often-chaotic life of a field agent with a competing desire to have a “normal” life and a family. While the story features several other important characters, on both sides of the law, none are presented to the reader on such an in-depth level as that of Gagne. Nonetheless, Sweetingham does an appreciable job of juggling a relatively large cast of characters, imbuing each with as much a degree of humanity as can be expected from the surprisingly brief 425 pages.
Chemical Cowboys feels much like watching a crime drama movie, due to Sweetingham’s fast-paced storytelling. Additionally, the recent time frame in which the book is set makes many of the events especially relevant to 20-somethings such as myself, who were too young at the time to have fully comprehended the rise of cocaine in the 70’s and 80’s.
Chemical Cowboys serves to fill in – in impressive detail – the driving forces behind the emergence of Ecstasy in mainstream American culture, as well as describe the struggle that ensued between the smugglers who made a living outside the law, and those who made it their mission to bring the outlaws to justice. Chemical Cowboys is a worthwhile read for those who have an interest in learning more about the Ecstasy phenomenon, as well as those who enjoy nonfiction crime stories as a genre.
About the author
Journalist Lisa Sweetingham spent four years following in the footsteps of DEA agents and Ecstasy traffickers to bring Chemical Cowboys to life. Previously, she covered high-profile murder trials and Supreme Court nomination hearings for Court TV online. Sweetingham is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Parade, Spin, Time Out New York, Health Affairs, and many other publications. She resides in Los Angeles. Chemical Cowboys is her first book.
For more information about the author or his work, please visit http://www.lisasweetingham.com/
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