‘Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks’ by Patrick Radden Keefe | Photo: Courtesy

Patrick Radden Keefe tells us in the preface to in his new book, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, that the 12 long-form essays “reflect some of my abiding preoccupations: crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial.” In this, of course, the stories are similar to the concerns in his previous two books: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland and Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. It’s a muddied world he covers, where just about everyone is tainted, though even the most sinister rogues have some mediating human qualities.

Among the more menacing group of transgressors Keefe writes about is Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose pre-terrorist college life displayed “a painfully American banality: cinder-block dorm rooms, big-screen TVs, mammoth boxes of Cheez-Its.” Wim Holleeder, the Dutch gangster who allegedly has a hit out for his own sister, comes across as wily and even quirky during his trial — “shifting in his chair, shaking his head, taking his eyeglasses off and twirling them like a propeller” — though Keefe makes no bones about the man’s overall brutality; and drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, “El Chapo” — at one point one of the most feared criminals in the world — “distinguished himself as a trafficker who brought an unusual sense of imagination and play to the trade.”

Then there’s Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist denied tenure at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, who, during the last department meeting of the semester, blocked the conference room door and shot six of her colleagues, killing three. Bishop grew up in a Boston suburb where she had shot and killed her brother, and Keefe thoroughly investigates this act, and its ultimate lack of consequence (the killing was ruled accidental), as a possible precursor to the later crime. Discussing whether or not the murder was intentional, Keefe writes, “When violence suddenly ruptures the course of our lives, we tend to tell ourselves stories in order to make it explicable. Confronted with scrambled pieces of evidence, we arrange them into a narrative.” Keefe concludes that “neither story” about the killing “was especially convincing,” and this willingness to live with ambiguity and irresolution is a hallmark of his journalism.

While the profiles of people who might rightly be considered villains is riveting, I found myself drawn more to the stories about genteel rogues. There is German wine forger Hardy Rodenstock, whose hustle was to convince wealthy people that the bottles he was selling were originally from the cellar of Thomas Jefferson. When uber-conservative and wine connoisseur Bill Koch, brother of Charles and David, goes mercilessly after Rodenstock, it’s hard not to side with the “bad guy” of the story. Similarly, HSBC computer technician Hervé Falciani may have broken the law when he disclosed which wealthy bank customers were laundering money and evading taxes, but our sympathies are generally with the whistleblower, whatever his motives might have been.

The book ends with a chapter on Anthony Bourdain, who is perhaps less of a rogue than the other scoundrels in the book. Though he periodically raises a cynical eyebrow over Bourdain’s antics, Keefe is clearly drawn to the celebrity chef’s star power, this man with the magnetism of “an aging rocker,” who “transformed himself into a well-heeled nomad who wanders the planet meeting fascinating people and eating delicious food,” fully enjoying his “fantasy profession.” The story was published in The New Yorker (where all these pieces first appeared) before Bourdain’s suicide, and it ends on an upbeat note, which is undercut by the tragedy that will follow. It’s an irony one can imagine that Keefe, whose profiles display a boundless interest in other people, feels deeply.

​This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books


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