The best American detective stories hook you from the start. Here’s the first sentence from one of the most famous: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit…” Here’s another: “One afternoon in December 2013, an assassin on board a KLM flight from Mexico City arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. This was not a business trip…” And a third: “Astrid Holleeder has arresting eyes that are swimming-pool blue, but that’s all I can reveal about her appearance, because she is in hiding, an exile in her own city, which is Amsterdam.”

Each of these three hard-boiled crime stories opens up a mystery. In each one, the first sentence grabs you so hard that over the course of the next 10,000 words you keep reading, trusting you’ll find out who did various bad things and why. But only the first is crime fiction. The putty-faced woman is the opening to Trouble is my Business, part of a collection written for American magazines in the 1930s by Raymond Chandler, probably the greatest crime fiction writer of his generation. The other two stories are not crime fiction. They are 21st-century crime fact. They were also written for an American magazine: rigorously fact-checked New Yorker journalistic pieces that are as hard-boiled and remarkable as anything written by Raymond Chandler or his contemporaries. They’re part of the latest book by award-winning American journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. A collection of non-fiction essays, its title could also rival Raymond Chandler – Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks.

“These stories were written over a dozen years,” says Keefe, “and they 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…. 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.”

Trouble, from dodgy wine salesmen to arms dealers and a Mexican drug cartel chief, turns out to be Keefe’s business. When I catch up with him on a Zoom call from his home in Westchester County on the outskirts of New York he seems bemused by the comparison with Chandler. “I read Chandler growing up, yeah, I loved Chandler. Your influences aren’t always what you think they are. When I was growing up, I read a lot of detective fiction. But listen, I gave a lot of thought to those first few lines because I don’t think any writer should take the reader’s attention for granted… particularly now there’s just so many competing demands. You have to really make a case from the first two sentences.”

Writing long-form non-fiction in our attention-poor, information-saturated world is an act of faith. Any writer has to ask themselves who is going to devote an hour or more to reading 10,000 words, and why. Keefe’s answer is to grab the reader by the throat, raising some unspoken mystery to ensure the reader commits to the end. I suggest this has become a luxurious style of journalism. In a world of hot takes, vacuous “listicles” and celebrity gossip, not many magazine proprietors are prepared to wait six months for a writer to produce an article, even a world-beating scoop. If Donald Trump could change America’s political conversation with fewer than 280 characters in a Tweet, and policy proposals on both sides of the Atlantic have been reduced to slogans you can put on a hat (Make America Great Again, Levelling Up, Get Brexit Done), then who is Keefe writing for?

He admits he was pessimistic too.

“The whole culture and discourse, the way people communicate in politics and convey ideas and stories, has reduced and reduced. One of the pieces in the book is about Mark Burnett, the English reality TV producer who reinvented Trump as someone who was plausibly a successful person. One of Burnett’s great adages is KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. I think it would be hard to imagine a more evocative summary of what’s happened to us generally as a culture over the last 25 years. At the New Yorker I think there was a moment when we were all a bit scared. What happened was that we realised people were starting to read the magazine on their phones. And just naturally, right, you think, “Oh Christ, nobody is going to read a 10,000-word article on their phone. Thinkabout the poor thumb just having to keep scrolling for an hour. And then this amazing thing happened – and we have the data to prove it – that they would. It was this miracle.

People will spend an hour reading a long-form article on their phone. That was a big breakthrough. In fact, the New Yorker’s subscriptions are up. I think part of the reason is we are an antidote to some of the other prevailing cultural trends as opposed to so much of what we encounter, which actually is looking to flatten everything into a bumper sticker or a ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ proposition.”

This reinvigoration of long reads has inspired a new generation of writers on both sides of the Atlantic, but adventurous journalism is never cost-free. Newspaper or magazine publishers and TV news directors are generally not prepared to spend money on even the most talented writer in the hope of a big story next year. Keefe agrees.

“The part of the [long-read] conversation that is less encouraging is that it costs a lot to do that,” he says. “It’s one thing to have an essay that yawns out to 10,000 words and it’s just somebody sitting at their desk writing beautifully and thoughtfully about some issue or another. It’s another to do the kind of work I do where you’re on planes, you’re on trains, you’re hiring interpreters and fixers, you’re paying for court documents. Building trust with sources takes months. I’d say most of the pieces in Rogues I spent a minimum six months on. And some of them I spent a year on. I’m very aware that it’s a rare privilege for me to have a magazine that will finance that kind of work because it’s just all too rare these days.” He laughs. “I’m a bit self-conscious about it because what I’m describing for you is what it’s like to be among the last of the dinosaurs. Which is, on the one hand, this tremendous luxury, and on the other hand you don’t take a lot of comfort in it when you look around and there aren’t a lot of other dinosaurs out there.”

Keefe is fascinated by the petty vanities of real-life characters, including the Mexican drug baron, El Chapo

I hope Keefe is wrong about the inevitable extinction of his brand of writing, since what makes it outstanding isn’t just time and an attention-grabbing style. It’s empathy. Keefe’s understanding (again like the best crime fiction writers) is of a morally complex world that is almost never purely Good or Bad. His book about Northern Ireland, for example, centres on the murder in 1972 of Jean McConville, a widowed Belfast mother of ten children, kidnapped by the IRA and killed – they say “executed” – as a suspected British informer. The crime is despicable, disgusting beyond words. Yet Keefe’s task is not to condone it but try to understand it. The book is titled Say Nothing, a quote from Seamus Heaney about the need to maintain silence and tribal loyalty amid the horrors of the Troubles. Cracking the code of silence was part of what brought Keefe to the story.

“I felt a great deal of ambivalence,” he tells me. “I felt like the literature on the Troubles was very vexatious. There were these strong points of view on one side or another. And often the writing was very Manichean. There was a sense of all the virtue on one side of the ledger and all the evil on the other, and it was just the different people… you’d have to flip the ledger around to accommodate the point of view of whoever was reading it. Every year, every event, every page, was just a morass of moral ambiguity, which I found interesting.”

This appreciation of moral ambiguity emerges in Keefe’s lawyerly attention to detail. He is fascinated by the petty vanities of real-life characters, including the Mexican drug baron, El Chapo (“Shorty”). Formally known as Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, El Chapo was as ruthless as you might expect of one of the world’s richest gangsters. But other parts of his life are particularly revealing, as Keefe explains: “I want to know about their family lives, I want to know about their relationships with their kids. In Chapo Guzman’s case, it matters to me that he really likes gourmet food and that he’s got all these ex-wives but he’s still close to them. In one of the homes they found hair dye, which accounts for how his hair and his moustache have remained with such a virile appearance of youth and vigour. Those little details, I think, are humanising. Not in ways that justify or let these people off the hook, but they allow us to see them as fully realised human beings.”

I remind Keefe that El Chapo the drug kingpin had his own serious drug habit: Viagra. “Yeah,” he laughs again. “And the thing with the Viagra, what’s fun to me, is that this is a guy who lived on the run for years and there was this whole infrastructure around protecting him. And what you realise is that it’s the little foibles – having his own drug habit, a constant requirement for Viagra, an unquenchable need – which complicated his life in hiding from the authorities.”

Keefe is Irish American, from Boston. He studied law at Yale and New York University and made his mark with the New Yorker in 2006, after pitching a story about Chinese “snakehead” crime gangs. Keefe’s interest in a story seems to increase in direct proportion to the difficulty of reporting it. But he seems less scared by criminals and terrorists, I suggest, than the prospect of dealing with the lawyers of very wealthy people. “It’s not more scary in the sense that I’ve done it enough; I’ve written enough about very wealthy people who have done really bad things that you start to price [legal costs] in as just part of the cost of doing business. They are going to hire obstreperous lawyers and PR spin doctors whose whole job is to introduce these transaction costs for reporters and people trying to get at the truth. They’re saying, ‘Listen, if you’re going to do this, we want to make it abundantly clear, we’re going to make it as unpleasant as possible.’ So I’m very careful about the work that I do and the truth is… even in England, the truth is a fairly strong defence to these kind of opportunistic legal challenges… So it’s not that I’m actually scared, it’s more that it annoys me. In a strange way it makes me feel more righteous energy to do the work and do it well and make it bulletproof and make it stick.”

“Righteous energy…”, I interrupt. So, it’s a crusade?

“That’s too strong. I have a kind of personal allergy to journalists who describe what they do in grand romantic terms. I do this job because to me it’s the best job in the world and I hate being bored and I love that I’m never bored. You know, I don’t sit through a lot of meetings. But I would refrain from describing what I do in terms that seem kind of grand or self-regarding.”

He does, however, sit through a lot of court work and with a lawyer’s eye he spends a lot of time looking through documents. Keefe’s greatest achievement – to date at least – is Empire of Pain, a methodical evisceration of the people behind the opioid drug crisis in the US and elsewhere: the Sackler family. Their company, Purdue Pharma, produced and ruthlessly marketed the drug OxyContin as a painkiller. It proved highly addictive. Keefe’s story begins with its own moral ambiguity, a portrait of a 71-year-old New York lawyer, Mary Jo White. She had been a prosecutor, prosecuting, among others, the perpetrators of the World Trade Centre bombing. White said being a prosecutor was simple: “Do the right thing. You’re going after bad guys. You’re doing something good for society every day.” But then she ended up working at a deposition in a New York court room for Kathe Sackler as the opioid scandal broke. Keefe notes acerbically: “This is a familiar dynamic for a lot of prosecutors with a mortgage and tuitions to think about. You spend the first half of your career going after the bad guys and then the second half representing them.”

What’s astounding is that the destruction of almost half a million lives by the US opioid epidemic was one of the greatest man-made health care disasters of modern times, and yet the Sacklers for years were lauded on both sides of the Atlantic as great supporters of good causes, most notably in the arts.

Keefe writes: “Kathe Sackler’s family had left its mark on New York City, in a manner the Vanderbilts or the Carnegies once did. But the Sacklers were wealthier now than either of those families that traced their fortunes to the Gilded Age. And their gifts extended well beyond New York, to the Sackler Museum at Harvard and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts, the Sackler Library at Oxford and the Sackler Wing at the Louvre, the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv and the Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology in Beijing… There were Sackler professorships and Sackler scholarships and Sackler lecture series and Sackler prizes.”

The one place where the Sackler name did not appear, however, was on their most successful investment, Purdue Pharma.

“The family business was not named after the Sacklers. In fact, you could scour Purdue Pharma’s website and find no mention of the Sacklers whatsoever. But Purdue was a privately-held company entirely owned by Kathe Sackler and other members of her family. In 1996, Purdue had introduced a groundbreaking drug, a powerful opioid painkiller called OxyContin, which was heralded as a revolutionary way to treat chronic pain. The drug became one of the biggest blockbusters in pharmaceutical history, generating some $35 billion in revenue. But it also led to a rash of addiction and abuse… Many people who started abusing OxyContin ended up transitioning to street drugs, like heroin or fentanyl. The numbers were staggering. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in the quarter-century following the introduction of OxyContin, some 450,000 Americans died of opioid-related overdoses. Such overdoses were now the leading cause of accidental death in America, accounting for more deaths than car accidents—more deaths, even, than that most quintessentially American of metrics, gunshot wounds. In fact, more Americans lost their
lives from opioid overdoses than had died in all the wars the country had fought since World War II.”

The Sacklers spent years threatening to sue Keefe because they did not like what he was writing. He shrugs off the problem. “There are people for whom I’m an irritant,” he tells me, “And probably a little more than that.” He’s continuing a tradition of American journalism that goes back to the Gilded Age and earlier, when, he reminds us, so-called “muckrakers” exposed (sometimes at great risk) what President Theodore Roosevelt once called the “malefactors of great wealth.” For decades, for generations, in the salons of New York or the colleges of great universities on both sides of the Atlantic and in the great art galleries of London, these prosperous people were courted and feted. They could afford the best properties, the best lawyers, the best advisers, the best consultants; their money could buy everything, including respectability. And it is these professional enablers who appear to irritate Keefe more than anything.

“Whether it’s Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein, or the Sacklers, people look back in retrospect and say, ‘How did they get away with it for so long?’ And the answer is often lawyers, PR people, management consultants: it’s the ring of professionalised, ostensibly neutral but actually quite mercenary, white-shoe enablers. And is the lawyer for the oligarch as bad as the oligarch, morally? No. But is the lawyer for the oligarch pure as the driven snow? In my view, no. I think if you enable somebody who is doing bad things for a living, if that’s what you do with your education and your skills and your energies, to me there’s something a bit morally suspect about that.”

Empire of Pain ends, as much of Keefe’s work does, with a simple human story and a twist. Keefe meets a man he calls “Jeff”, an opioid addict who introduced the drugs to the woman who would become his wife. They became heroin addicts. So did their baby, its blood contaminated in the womb, although the infant’s opioid dependency was treatable. Jeff opens up to Keefe. He says his labouring work had been in the grounds of the summer house of Mortimer and Jacqueline Sackler. While he was working he would sit in his truck and snort the ground-up OxyContin that had made the Sackler family fortune. It’s an ending that readers – and I suspect Raymond Chandler himself – would appreciate.

“Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks” by Patrick Radden Keefe is published by Pan Macmillan (£20)

Gavin Esler is a writer and broadcaster, and author most recently of “How Britain Ends”

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