Simple stories of fraud and corruption: the thieves reviewed

Thieves: True Stories of Scammers, Killers, Rebels and Swindlers

Patrick Radden Keefe

Picadorp. 368£20

Don’t be discouraged, but be warned. Rascals is not a book: it is a kind of high-end reel, a best of articles by Patrick Radden Keefe, editor for the New Yorker. The magazine has always had its stars, including James Thurber, EB White, Joseph Mitchell, Janet Malcolm, Anthony Lane and Malcolm Gladwell. Let’s be honest, Patrick Radden Keefe isn’t one of them – or wasn’t, until the publication last year of empire of painhis book about the Sackler family and the opioid epidemic in America, based on an old New Yorker
article. An overnight sensation, it took years of preparation.

In fact, if you’ve read the New Yorker over the past decade or so – if you’re a rootless cosmopolitan, say, or a non-Manhattan with vaguely liberal inclinations who can nevertheless afford both private medical insurance and Condé Nast’s subscription rates – you will have encountered Keefe’s characteristics. The one about the good wine fraud? Or the Dutch mobster and his sister who turned against him? That of El Chapo? The one about the mass shooter who was also a neurobiologist? Deeply disturbing and clearly told stories of everyday and extraordinary wickedness, dishonesty and corruption – they are all from Keefe.

Rascals is a compilation of those half-remembered tracks – a quick empire of pain followed – and a publishing project as entertaining and confusing as any other volume of journalism collected. As Keefe admits in the preface: “The paradox of magazines is that they are both perishable and permanent” – and more so than ever. “A great magazine article was as evanescent as the cherry blossom: here today, gone next week. Now it’s just a click away, forever. Here’s a catchphrase for any truly honest 21st century publishing house: “Books: why not save yourself the trouble of clicking?”

Keefe claims that as a journalist he has no “particular rhythm”, but nevertheless lists his concerns as “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating the licit and illicit worlds, the family ties, the power of denial”. It’s a useful checklist. He’s not really an investigative journalist; there are no proper scoops here. It’s not a Woodward, a Bernstein or a Seymour Hersh. His stories are short moral tales rather than long reports. They work like any good story: there are twists, ups and downs, revelations and betrayals.

Perhaps the most memorable of this collection is the piece about Ken Dornstein, the brother of a Lockerbie bombing victim, who became an amateur sleuth, devoting his life to investigating crime. Keefe’s account of Dornstein’s quest to uncover the identity of his brother’s killers is almost as doggedly relentless as Dornstein’s own determined proceedings:

Dornstein took me up to the third floor, where two cramped rooms were devoted to Lockerbie. In one room, shelves were filled with books on espionage, aviation, terrorism and the Middle East. Jumbo binders have housed decades of research. In the other room, he had lined the walls with pictures of Libyan suspects… Dornstein derives such clinical satisfaction from his work that he can recount the darkest discoveries with joyous detachment.

If not exactly cheerful, Keefe’s polished reporting is certainly entertaining. There are plenty of juicy little ones New Yorker
exposed tropes. An article on financial fraud, for example, begins: “As Dr. Sid Gilman approached the stage, the hotel ballroom quieted with anticipation. It was July 29, 2008, and a thousand people had gathered in Chicago for the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease. Plot ? Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the start of nearly every Malcolm Gladwell story, and a thousand imitators since.

Other such information includes the retired FBI agent whose cell phone ringtone is the theme of The good the bad and the ugly; the woman in hiding who dons a latex mask to surprise Keefe; and pretty much all the frankly unbelievable feats of British paratrooper turned TV producer turned MGM-Television president turned Christian Mark Burnett, responsible for assigning a businessman named Donald Trump to a show called The apprentice and whose great legacy, therefore, according to Keefe, is to have “cast a serially bankrupt carnival huckster in the role of a man who could conceivably become the leader of the free world”.

Each article ends with a note updating it since its first publication. These afterwords are instructive. The coda to the story of mass shooter Amy Bishop is particularly depressing. Keefe notes that she is “still serving her life sentence in Alabama,” adding simply that her son Seth, “a violinist, like his mother,” was recently shot by a friend. What is this Larkin line? Whether Rascals needed an epigraph, or Keefe a motto, it would probably be: “Man puts misery unto man.”

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