Patrick Radden Keefe on his true-story collection ‘Rogues’

On the shelf

Villains: True stories of crooks, killers, rebels and crooks

By Patrick Radden Keefe
Doubleday: 368 pages, $30

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Astrid Holleeder is the sister of a Dutch gangster who risks her life to bring him down. Hardy Rodenstock is perhaps the biggest fraudster in the vintage wine world. Amy Bishop is the rare mass shooter with a deadly secret in her past.

These three come alive 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 best-sellers, full-length non-fiction tales about the troubles in Northern Ireland (Say Nothing) and how the Sackler family drove America into the opioid crisis (Empire of Pain).

The focus in this week’s “Rogues” 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 technician who uncovered the mysteries of Swiss banking; the death penalty attorney who defended the Boston Marathon bomber; and producer Mark Burnett, who revived Donald Trump with The Apprentice.

Speaking to The Times via video conference, Keefe outlined the thematic connections between his stories, as well as the art of getting people to care about random subjects and the limits of what journalists can achieve, in an interview that warranted length and clarity has been edited.

How are these stories representative of your career and how do they relate?

I love being a professional amateur. I move from one topic to another, parachute into one story, spend three to six months on it, and then move on to the next. At the moment I never feel like I’m pursuing any particular subject or topic, I just chase down any interesting story. I thought I had free will when choosing stories, but in hindsight I’ve seen that I keep coming back to a handful of themes.

I am fascinated by the categories that we have of 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 rationalize the bad things they’ve done. The themes return, but hopefully the characters and the lives they lead are different.

Do you only try to tell interesting stories in your work or do you hope to change something?

I never think about the impact a story could have. I don’t see myself as an activist, even if I find something outrageous, and I’m confused that other people aren’t outraged. My job as a journalist is to collect facts, tell a compelling story and inspire people.

You occasionally affect reality with what you do, and that’s satisfying, but the majority of the time you describe the world rather than change it. And if you change things, then on a small scale.

"rogue" by Patrick Radden Keefe

Is it frustrating when the rich and powerful still get away with it?

It’s part of the strangeness of the country we live in. When a company has a depraved culture, sometimes the company will plead guilty and sometimes individuals will be convicted or convicted, but the people in charge at the top of the pyramid manage to avoid indictment and liability.

That was the case with the Sackler family or here [billionaire] Steve Cohen and the insider trading allegations against his company SAC. But as a journalist, I can write a meticulously fact-checked story about the government’s efforts to bring him down, and although they were ultimately unsuccessful, you can read the story and decide the case for yourself.

When you write about topics like Swiss banking, insider trading or antique wines, do you think of readers who are not familiar with the topic?

If there’s one thing I hate as a reader, it’s when an author does a lot of great research, but it feels like they’re just shoving it all off on me. For me, the enjoyment lies in the distillation. You’ll never read an article of mine where you get a first paragraph that’s colorful and attractive, and then a paragraph break, and then it says, “And now a thousand words on the history of corn.”

I always remember I’m interviewing people who are specialists or delve into the details of the story, but the reader may not know anything about the subject. With the insider trading scandal, this trial had been covered daily in the business section, but I felt like there was a grand operatic version of the story. So I kept telling myself, “You’re not writing for the person reading the business section, you’re writing for the person who sees a story about insider trading and turns the page.” Can I get that reader and drag them in with the sheer human drama ?

Are you initially drawn to the larger narrative or to the people themselves?

It’s the people, the characters. It’s weird to call them characters, but I’m drawn to narrative storytelling. As a reader, when 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 meet anyone, I feel uninteresting. I think we’re programmed to process information in the form of stories about people.

You used the word “characters”. Worried about dramatic storytelling that blurs the lines so readers forget they’re reading about real people?

I’m fearless when it comes to bringing in techniques from novels: where do I start with the story, structure, characterization, suspense and information withholding? The lines blur when you cheat and get ahead of the gathered facts.

I’m never tempted to do that. I tried writing fiction in college and failed. Most of what I discover in my reporting I couldn’t make up. If you put some of these details in a novel, no one would believe them. That gives me so much satisfaction.

The book has a story about the sister of the biggest gangster in Amsterdam. She’s also a lawyer… and she is his Attorney. And nobody can catch him because nobody can get close to him. But then you decides to hit him up. It would feel too comfortable in a thriller, but these things happen in real life.

And in fiction, you could bang your head against the wall all day trying to find the perfect ending. In reporting, someone will eventually say it and it will fall into your lap. You just have to be able to recognize it when it comes. Sometimes I’m interviewing someone and they say something and I put a little star in the margin of my notebook because when I hear it I know: That’s my last line. Patrick Radden Keefe on his true-story collection ‘Rogues’

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