REVIEW: ROGUES: TRUE STORIES OF GRIFTERS, KILLERS, REBELS AND CROOKS by Patrick Radden Keefe

The preface of Patrick Radden Keefe’s new essay collection, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks offers up a curious notion: In a culture obsessed with the role of the criminal (be it the charm of a con artist or the suspect of a frenzied criminal trial), what does such collective voyeurism say about society as a whole? Told through a series of essays previously published in The New Yorker, Keefe puts this fascination on display and illuminates exactly what enthralls us to seek an understanding of what he refers to as “the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds.”

Those familiar with Keefe’s work will know him to be particularly well-suited to taking on this challenge. His past investigative efforts have led to a critically acclaimed body of work that includes Say Nothing, a study on the repercussions of violence in Northern Ireland, and Empire of Pain, a harrowing exploration of the Sackler Family’s role in the opioid epidemic. 

Rogues is entertainment of the highest order, but the salacious nature of its subjects is not where the collection’s achievement lies. It is Keefe’s voice as we follow an imperative that leads him to talk to death row defense attorneys, mercenaries, and wine forgers (among quite a few others) and assume the role of observer and confidante. Through in-depth interviews, Keefe grants us access to a covert world, actively bearing the responsibility of allowing an audience to see behind the curtain. In lean, unsentimental prose, Keefe tackles what often amounts to the worst day of a person’s life and recounts it with an intuition and sensitivity that borders on profound. Attention to detail is a mark of his work, and Rogues is no different. Impeccably researched, Keefe seeks to create unsparing images both of the criminals and crimes at hand, often sacrificing a concrete answer in favor of seeking out the more meaningful ethical questions we must ask of ourselves.

In “Swiss Bank Heist,” a data theft of global importance perpetuates a timeless quandary. If it takes a criminal act to catch a criminal, who is the more significant perpetrator? While an essay on the antics of world finance might not appeal to some, in Keefe’s hands, the drama takes the shape of a battle of international police against the intrigues of a Julian Assange wannabe, complete with aliases, Swiss banks and untold (and untaxed) wealth. 

In “A Loaded Gun,” we are introduced to Amy Bishop. A mother and academic, Bishop opened fire during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama. She killed three people and injured three others. Her case offers a unique perspective in a landscape where mass shootings have become a regular occurrence. A tragic past had delineated her life- but to what extent did it play a role in the shooting? Keefe’s interviewing skills are on particular display as he talks to family members, friends, and law enforcement officers to accurately illustrate the complexity of the woman against the brutality of the crime she committed. His healthy skepticism marks him as a writer who does not shy away from highlighting conflicts of accounts and interest within a story, adding the critical stability needed in discussions of morality within a community. 

The criminals in Rogues are not just their crimes — they are family members, friends, and neighbors. In short, they are little different than us. Keefe’s deft character explorations point out a truth well known to some — that the line between crime and criminal is often as hard to see as it is to erase, and perhaps it is the act of crossing the line of no return that has us pushing up against the glass to get a better look. 

Caitlin Phillippo

Caitlin Phillippo is a freelance writer and investigative researcher living in Savannah.