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'Rogues' showcases Patrick Radden Keefe's preternatural gift for reading people

Rogues
Doubleday

In the first essay in Rogues, the new collection from journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, a wine collector is explaining why he's determined to find out the truth about the possibly counterfeit bottles he bought years before. If he got cheated, he tells Keefe, he wants whoever is responsible to pay. Then he adds: "Also, it's a fun detective story."

You get the feeling that Keefe can relate. An investigative reporter, he's made his career out of detective stories, and his last two books — Say Nothing, about the Northern Ireland conflict, and Empire of Pain, about the Sackler family and the drug OxyContin — won critical acclaim for his thoughtful deep dives into complex subjects.

Rogues collects a dozen of Keefe's reported pieces for The New Yorker, the magazine he's been writing for since 2006. The articles "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," Keefe writes in a preface to the book. It's an excellent collection of Keefe's detective work, and a fine introduction to his illuminating writing.

In "Crime Family," Keefe profiles Astrid Holleeder, a Dutch woman who's "an exile in her own city" of Amsterdam. Astrid believes that one of the Netherlands' most notorious criminals — a man who's serving a life sentence for multiple murders — wants her dead. That criminal happens to be her brother, Wim Holleeder, who became a household name in the Netherlands after kidnapping Freddy Heineken, the CEO of the Heineken beer company.

Astrid, Keefe writes, "thinks a lot about how she might be assassinated, gaming out fatal scenarios. Whenever she stops at a red light and an unfamiliar vehicle sharks up alongside her, she clutches the wheel, her heart hammering. Then the light changes, and she exhales and keeps moving." Keefe is thrown off by inconsistencies in Astrid's answers to his questions, but ultimately concludes "that Astrid was sincere in her fear that Wim wants her dead. If she was sometimes inconsistent when I inquired about the logistics of her life, it was more likely out of a cautious disinclination to give too much away than from a desire to heighten drama."

It's a fascinating profile that showcases Keefe's ability to empathize with his subjects while still maintaining an appropriate level of journalistic skepticism. It also demonstrates Keefe's immense skill as a storyteller; like the other pieces in the book, it's compulsively readable, imbued with narrative tension that's never overwrought or melodramatic.

Keefe shows a little more skepticism — perhaps understandably — in "Winning," his profile of Mark Burnett, the creator of the reality show The Apprentice, which brought Donald Trump to American living rooms on a weekly basis for 14 seasons. Keefe does an excellent job tracing Burnett's unlikely career — he served in the British Army, then worked as a nanny before eventually becoming a television producer.

Keefe approaches his subject with caution, noting that Burnett's "anecdotes about his life tend to have a three-act structure," just like most movies. Regarding The Apprentice, Keefe asks "Did Burnett believe what he was selling?", and observes that "Like Trump, Burnett seemed to have both a jaundiced impression of the gullible essence of the American people and a brazen enthusiasm for how to exploit it."

It's a fascinating look at a man who helped change the course of American political history by, as Keefe has it, casting "a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world." (Spoiler alert: Well, you know.)

The collection closes with "Journeyman," Keefe's 2017 profile of Anthony Bourdain. When the celebrity chef, author and television personality first gained fame, he cut something of a punk-rock figure but, Keefe writes, "over the years ... has transformed himself into a well-healed nomad who wanders the planet meeting fascinating people and eating delicious food."

Keefe is clearly interested in how people portray themselves — what their personas say about the humans underneath — and he's especially drawn in by the legendarily charismatic Bourdain. The chef cultivated a laid-back, devil-may-care attitude, Keefe writes, but was actually "controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic. He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus." It's a carefully observed profile, certainly one of the best written about Bourdain, who — as Keefe notes in a coda to the story — died by suicide the year after Keefe's article was published.

Rogues is a wonderful book, not only because Keefe's prose is masterful, but because he has a preternatural gift for reading people. He recognizes that we're all unreliable narrators of our own lives, and writes about his subjects with a keen sense of understanding. He writes that he hopes the pieces in Rogues "illuminate something about crime and punishment, the slipperiness of situational ethics, the choices we make as we move through this world, and the stories we tell ourselves and others about those choices." And they do. This book is a joy to read.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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