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An enthralling ‘Rogues’ gallery from Patrick Radden Keefe

The author and New Yorker writer profiles a dozen cons, killers and characters.
Patrick Radden Keefe is the author of  "Rogues."
Patrick Radden Keefe is the author of "Rogues." [ CREDIT: PHILIP MONTGOMERY | Philip Montgomery ]
Published Jul. 21

Patrick Radden Keefe is the Sherlock Holmes of long-form nonfiction, a relentless investigator who turns his reporting into irresistible storytelling.

His two most recent books, “Say Nothing” and “Empire of Pain,” respectively revealed the complexities of a political murder in Northern Ireland and the appalling tale of how the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, created the opioid crisis and made billions on it.

Both of those books pack an enormous amount of challenging reporting into page-turning accounts that are as compelling as the best crime fiction.

Related: Read a review of "Empire of Pain."

His new book, “Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks,” is a collection of a dozen of his profiles for the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 2006.

Some of the stories would make entertaining caper movies, like the first, “The Jefferson Bottles.” It recounts how a wealthy wine dealer with a sketchy past, Hardy Rodenstock, scammed a much wealthier wine collector — Bill Koch, one of the billionaire Koch brothers — out of large amounts of money with some dusty old bottles of French wine that allegedly had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

The story expands to retell the legal battles that followed and to offer a fascinating glimpse inside the world of wine counterfeiting.

Other stories chill to the bone. In “A Loaded Gun,” Keefe looks into the case of Amy Bishop, a neurobiology professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, who in 2010 came to a faculty meeting and shot six of her colleagues, three of them fatally.

Keefe finds that when she was 21, Bishop had shot her brother to death in what was deemed an accident — a judgment that might have been tragically wrong. His interviews with her family and with Bishop herself go far beyond the usual mass-shooter headlines.

Several of the chapters in “Rogues” are about corporate crooks, traders and bankers and mining moguls — Keefe has a gift for clearly explaining deliberately arcane financial transactions. Others are about criminals who operate entirely outside the law, such as “The Hunt for El Chapo,” the notorious drug lord, and “The Prince of Marbella,” about a powerful and elusive international arms broker.

Keefe finds some of his rogues in the world of show business, notably Mark Burnett, who started his career in Hollywood working as a nanny but rose to reign over reality television (although he hates that phrase) as the creator of such shows as “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”

The latter show is Keefe’s focus, especially Burnett’s decision to cast Donald Trump in the series at a time when Trump was a punchline teetering on the brink of financial ruin. The two had a lot in common, Keefe writes: “Like Trump, Burnett seemed to have both a jaundiced impression of the gullible essence of the American people and a brazen enthusiasm for how to exploit it.”

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Keefe’s account of the symbiosis between the two men and of how the show was made (and how little reality was involved) is revealing. Just as interesting are Burnett’s career pivot to running a Christian-oriented production company and his reluctance to talk about Trump.

A few of the chapters look at people who couldn’t be called rogues themselves but who interact with them in some way. One is “The Worst of the Worst,” about Judy Clarke, a lawyer who specializes in defending notorious criminals in death penalty cases because of her unshakable belief in justice for all. Keefe writes about her work defending Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, examining the toll it takes on her and what it shows us about how someone like Tsarnaev becomes a killer.

The final profile, “Journeyman,” is a perceptive and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of TV personality and chef Anthony Bourdain. Keefe follows Bourdain’s globetrotting footsteps for several interviews and is on the spot during Bourdain’s famed dinner in Hanoi, Vietnam, with then-President Barack Obama, a meal that was featured in an episode of Bourdain’s CNN series “Parts Unknown.”

Keefe discovers that behind Bourdain’s swashbuckling punk-rock persona is a control freak who frets over every detail of his television series: “He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.”

He also frets over the impact of his show, as he seeks out little-known gems and broadcasts them to the world. “It’s a gloriously doomed enterprise,” he tells Keefe. “I’m in the business of finding great places, and then we f--k them up.”

Keefe describes both the glamour and the loneliness of Bourdain’s life and notes the disintegration of his second marriage. He makes friends easily — who didn’t want to be friends with Tony Bourdain? — and leaves them behind just as easily.

All of the essays in this stellar collection have end notes catching us up with what’s happened to their subjects since Keefe published his stories: arrests made, prison terms served, dollars defrauded.

The end note for the Bourdain profile is a single line, noting that he took his own life a year after the article was published.

Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks

By Patrick Radden Keefe

Doubleday, 368 pages, $30

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