Book Review by Frank O’Shea
ROGUES. True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks. By Patrick Radden Keefe. Picador. 348 pp. $30.
Patrick Radden Keefe comes from the ‘Irish’ section of Boston and is a descendant of emigrants from Donegal. His mother is from Melbourne and it is a city which he says he has frequently visited. His first book, Say Nothing, about the search for Belfast woman Jean McConville, taken by the Provisional IRA, was reviewed here at the end of 2019. This is his latest book and it is a wonderful read. After you finish it, you will feel that you have read a dozen books, because Keefe does not skimp on his descriptions or the backgrounds to his narrative. Each story is 30 pages, give or take, of closely-typed text.
The opening chapter describes counterfeiting in the heady end of the wine industry. Given the people involved, whether as buyers or sellers, writers or tasters, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for those cheated. He gives one example of the Bordeaux Lafleur wine, often cited as one of the world’s finest. In 1947, they bottled only five magnums, but ‘nineteen magnums of 1947 Lafleur have sold at auction since 1998.’
In his story about the Holleeder crime family of Amsterdam, responsible for the kidnap of beer maker Freddie Heineken, he meets most of the principal characters. Two of the sisters in the family testified against their older brother and now drive bulletproof cars while wearing bulletproof vests. Meanwhile, he is serving a life sentence for multiple murders, but still has the Supreme Court of the Netherlands and after that the European Court in which to play out his appeals using funds retained from the kidnapping.
In one chapter, Keefe returns to the same world that he massacred in his 2021 book Empire of Pain, the US pharmaceutical industry. In 2008, billionaire hedge fund manager Steven Cohen had invested heavily in two companies that had combined to develop a drug for Alzheimer’s disease. The day before the results of trials on the drugs were to be announced, he sold off all his shares at huge profit, and sure enough the trials were inconclusive and the shares sank. The various federal investigating bodies spent years trying to work out, against copiously funded legal teams, how Cohen had done it.
Keefe explains that Cohen’s information came from one of his employees named Martoma who had formed a long friendship with the doctor-chair of the safety monitoring group of the trials. In time, the doctor-chair was fired by his university and abandoned by all his friends, while Martoma spent nine years in federal prison. Meanwhile, Cohen is today one of the richest men on Wall Street and has recently purchased a 97.2 per cent interest in the New York Mets.
One of the longer stories is that of university academic Amy Bishop who shot three of her colleagues at the end of a meeting at which her tenure was not renewed. She is serving a life sentence without parole. After the killings, it was revealed that she had killed her younger brother many years earlier, but it was declared an accident. Keefe interviews many of those involved at that time, including her parents, but does not come to any conclusion about that event.
His account of the hunt for drug king El Chapo will have most interest to Americans, though it may leave an outsider with wonder that the economy of one country – Mexico – seems to depend so heavily on providing drugs through air-conditioned tunnels for their next-door neighbours: who needs a wall! In a similar vein is his depiction of Switzerland as a refuge for ever more complicated methods that allow high-flyers to avoid paying tax in their own country.
There is a chapter on Mark Burnett, the former British paratrooper with service in Northern Ireland, turned mastermind behind The Apprentice whose ‘chief legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world.’ Another chapter sees an international arms broker taken from his Marbella palace against official Spanish grumbles to face a US court which sentences him to 30 years prison. And there is a another that deals with the failed attempts to spare the death penalty on one of the Boston marathon bombers.
Compulsively well-written, with the skill of a master storyteller, many of the stories featuring the kinds of clever twists favoured by thriller writers, this is a book for a slow winter read. A little advice, however: if you do get it, you could stop before the final chapter, dealing with another tv star, Anthony Bourdain, who doesn’t seem to fit into the company of the people suggested in the book’s subtitle.
Frank is an energetic member of the Tintean editorial collective.