On the bookshelf
Thieves: True Stories of Scammers, Killers, Rebels and Swindlers
By Patrick Radden Keefe
Double day: 368 pages, $30
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Astrid Holleeder is the sister of a Dutch gangster, risking her life to bring him down. Hardy Rodenstock is perhaps the biggest scammer in the vintage wine world. Amy Bishop is the rare female mass shooter, with a deadly secret in her past.
These three come alive vividly in “Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks,” a collection of articles from The New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe. Keefe’s previous two books were both acclaimed bestsellers, comprehensive non-fiction accounts of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (“Say Nothing”) and how the Sackler family led America through the opioid crisis (” Empire of Pain”).
In “Rogues,” which comes out this week, the focus is on criminals (from insider traders to El Chapo), but the stories cover a wide range of people, including celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain; a computer scientist who revealed the secrets of the Swiss banking industry; the death row attorney who defended the Boston Marathon suicide bomber; and producer Mark Burnett, who resurrected Donald Trump with “The Apprentice.”
Speaking to The Times via video conference, Keefe described the thematic connections between his stories, as well as the art of making people care about random topics and the limits of what journalists can accomplish, in an interview that has been edited for length and clarity.
How are these stories representative of your career and how are they related?
I like to become a professional dilettante. I jump from one subject to another, I parachute into a story, I spend three to six months there, then I move on to the next one. At the moment, I never feel like I’m pursuing a particular theme or topic, I just pursue any story that’s interesting. I thought I had free will when choosing stories, but in retrospect I saw that I kept coming back to a handful of themes.
I’m fascinated by the categories we have for what is legal and illegal and what we call a crime and how we define those things. I’ve always been interested in denial and the stories people tell themselves, their families and their communities to justify the bad things they’ve done. The themes keep coming back, but thankfully the characters and the lives they lead are varied.
Are you just trying to tell interesting stories in your work or are you hoping to make changes?
I never think about the impact a story might have. I don’t consider myself an activist, even if I find something outrageous, and I’m confused that others aren’t outraged. My job as a journalist is to gather facts, tell a compelling story and engage people.
You sometimes affect reality with what you do and that’s rewarding, but the vast majority of the time you’re describing the world, not changing it. And when you change things, it’s in small steps.
Is it frustrating when the rich and powerful nevertheless get away with it unscathed?
This is part of the strangeness of the country in which we live. When a company has a rotten culture, sometimes the company pleads guilty and sometimes individuals do or are convicted, but the ringleaders at the top of the pyramid manage to avoid responsibility.
It was true with the Sackler family or here with [billionaire] Steve Cohen and the insider trading charges against his company, SAC. But as a journalist, I can write a thoroughly vetted story about the government’s efforts to bring him down and even if they ultimately failed, you can read the story and decide the case for yourself.
When you write about topics like Swiss banking, insider trading or ancient wines, do you think of readers who know nothing about them?
If there’s one thing I hate as a reader, it’s when a writer does a ton of great research, but I feel like they’re pushing it across the table to me. For me the pleasure is in the distillation. You’ll never read an article from me where you get a colorful and engaging first section, then you get a paragraph break, then it says, “And now, a thousand words about corn history.”
The thing I always remember is that I’m interviewing people who are specialists or deep into the details of the story, but the reader may not know anything about the subject. Along with the insider trading scandal, this lawsuit had been covered daily in the business section, but I felt like there was a grand opera version of the story. So I kept thinking to myself, “You’re not writing for the person reading the business column, you’re writing for the person who sees an insider trading story and moves on. Can I get that reader and entice them with the pure human drama?
Are you initially drawn to the larger narrative or the people themselves?
These are the people, the characters. It’s weird to call them characters, but I’m drawn to narrative storytelling. As a reader, if I pick up a book about a period in history or something in nature or a complex political issue and read a thousand words and don’t punch a human being, I disengage. I think we are wired to process information in the form of stories about people.
You used the word “characters”. Are you worried about dramatic storytelling that blurs the lines so readers forget they’re reading about real people?
I don’t hesitate to bring novel techniques: where to start the story, the structure, the characterization, the suspense and the retention of information. Blurring the lines occurs when you cheat, getting ahead of the factual information you have gathered.
I’m never tempted to do that. I tried to write fiction in college and failed. I could not invent most of the things that I discover in my reports. If you put some of these details into a novel, no one would believe them. This is what gives me so much satisfaction.
The book tells the story of the sister of Amsterdam’s biggest gangster. She is also a lawyer… and she is his lawyer. And no one can catch him because no one can approach him. But then she decides to turn against him. In a thriller, that would seem too convenient, but these things happen in real life.
And in fiction, you might be banging your head against the wall all day trying to find the perfect ending. With reporting, eventually someone will say it and it will get to you. You just need to be able to recognize it when it comes. Sometimes I interview someone and he says something, and I put a little star in the margin of my notebook, because when I hear it I know: it’s my last line.