Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels, and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe (Pan Macmillan, £14.79)

If you are ever on the receiving end of an inquiry from Patrick Radden Keefe, be on your guard. He is a seriously determined and tenacious investigator. His research is intimidatingly thorough and he doesn’t readily take “no” for an answer. 

There is a pattern to his journalism and the essays in his new book, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, reflect it. He scopes the undersides of the contemporary world and drugs, armaments, killings and all sorts of greed and chicanery feature strongly. If such hard-boiled stories appeal, then this is a book for you.

In his award-winning podcast series built around the Scorpions’ song “Wind of Change”, Keefe reflects on the character of his writing:

“… if there’s one connective thread that runs through a lot of my stories it’s Secrets, secret worlds,   uncovering things I’m not supposed to know.”

The essays in Rogues – originally published between 2008 and 2018 – are par for the course. Many have the appearance of being precis for the kind of longer studies which have made Keefe’s name, most recently the highly acclaimed Empire of Pain, an investigation of the opioid crisis in the US.

If there is a criticism to be made of the essays in Rogues it is that some have been overtaken by events and would have benefitted from more substantial updating than is provided in a few italicised sentences at the end of each chapter. But that would be to carp at what in the round is a scintillating set of exposures of the nasty and of the tragic.

Keefe is not easy to pigeonhole. Born into a third-generation Irish immigrant family in Boston, he was schooled at the prestigious Milton Academy in Massachusetts – attended earlier by T S Eliot and Robert and Teddy Kennedy – before studying at Columbia University in New York followed by postgraduate studies at Cambridge and the LSE.

Indeed his interest in the electronic eavesdropping covered later in his first book, Chatter, was sparked during his time in Britain when he caught sight of the listening station at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire. Thereafter via Chinese immigrant history (Snakehead), Keefe branched out into a world increasingly peopled by secretive bad guys involved in murder in Northern Ireland (Say Nothing) or who knowingly induced drug addiction in the US.

The nursery of Keefe’s talent – and the source for all the essays in Rogues – was the liberal magazine The New Yorker. That’s where he made his first pitch for publication and where he has remained a staff writer to this day. Keefe is not only a coolly conscientious investigative journalist but a real literary craftsman. His scene-setting is masterly. He invariably employs anecdotes to build interest, structure and tension.

The opening paragraphs of one of the best essays in the collection, The Hunt for El Chapo: Inside the Capture of the World’s Most Notorious Drug Lord, illustrate this well. The reader is first invited to witness the seemingly routine arrival of a passenger at Amsterdam airport; but soon thereafter the man is identified as a drugs cartel assassin. After this restrained start, Keefe opens out the narrative into a story of vicious drug gang rivalry, widespread corruption and of US frustration at repeated Mexican failures to capture El Chapo and after eventually putting him behind bars, keeping him there.

Drugs features in an entirely different way in the portrayal of Monzer al-Kassar, “The Prince of Marbella”, a ruthless Syrian procurer and seller of arms to anyone anywhere ready to pay for them. Behind his ostentatious vanity and use of his palatial mansion in Spain, Monzer operates through layers of deceit involving state and other terrorists.

He is a man who remained willing to arrange the disposal of anyone who got in his way before, eventually, he was himself extradited, arraigned and sentenced in a US court. Here as elsewhere in the collection, Keefe himself avoids judgement and allows Monzer and his defenders to implicate themselves.

Not all his stories are so conspicuously violent. Altogether lighter-toned, even comic, is The Jefferson Bottles an essay about counterfeit wines supposedly purchased in Paris and shipped back to the US by (future US President) Thomas Jefferson when a visitor to Paris in the late 18th century. In this story, there are no heroes just the fraudsters, the supposed independent experts and the credulous purchasers of supposedly rare wines duped in the process. It is hard to feel sorry for any of them.

Some characters are drawn in all their complex ambiguity and leave the reader uncertain as to their true motives. In the Swiss Bank Heist Keefe allows Herve Falciani, an IT specialist employed by HSBC in Geneva, to weave his seeming fantasies as he seeks to explain his reasons for having stolen bank customers’ data and subsequently publicising individual instances of assumed tax evasion.

Was this, as he claimed, to expose such evasion by foreign nationals or was it, as his former girlfriend argued, to hawk the information around to the highest bidder? Whilst the Swiss authorities fought to sustain their banking secrecy laws other countries, notably France, used the data Falciani provided to pursue tax dodgers and lauded him as a whistleblowing public servant. Keefe never quite draws a conclusion either way, though his sympathies are clearly not with the secretive Swiss.

After reading these essays  – as well as a number of Keefe’s earlier books – it is hard not to agree with the reported remark of his wife that he “is intrigued by all the bad guys”. There are certainly plenty to choose from in this collection. However, two of the essays tread more complex and unsettling paths. 

One – Journeyman, the last in the collection – is a portrait of the celebrated American food writer, traveller and broadcaster, Anthony Bourdain. It sits oddly among the other essays and was published originally in 2017, one year before Bourdain committed suicide. Keefe’s portrait is of a highly successful but also troubled man who had exhausted his professional interest in food and travel and whose marriage had recently collapsed. It is a melancholy essay about the sad end of a talented man.

The other and especially challenging essay is a truly tragic tale. A Loaded Gun tells the story of Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist at the University of Alabama who apparently provoked by her failure to obtain a permanent university appointment, turned a gun on her departmental colleagues in the course of a staff meeting. Three of them were killed and others injured.

With great control, Keefe leads the reader on an exploration of the relationship between the murders in Alabama and the death by shooting in a small town in Massachusetts twenty years earlier of Amy’s younger brother by her hand also. What emerges is a tale in which Amy’s mother repeatedly said Amy had only accidentally fired the gun in the family home.

Though the investigating police officers were suspicious at the time, the local head of police was a close acquaintance of Amy’s mother, Judy, and had closed down the case. But the murders in Alabama raised questions again as to what exactly had happened twenty years earlier. Keefe’s persistent questioning of Amy’s parents makes for disturbing reading; he doesn’t pull his punches as he seeks answers.

The implication is clear: that Amy’s mother had suppressed the incident in her own mind, unwilling to risk the loss of both of her children, one to the graveyard and the other to judicial execution or life-long imprisonment.

Keefe is clearly in his element when writing about the bad guys; but among the best essays in Rogues are those which require empathy and nuance as in the portraits of Anthony Bourdain and Amy Bishop.

Keefe has many strengths as a journalist and writer but he is at his very best when he explores individuals who are more flawed than fallen.