Patrick Radden Keefe Is One of the Good Guys

The author of Rogues talks about killers, criminals, and the “inescapable cruelty” of his work.

Photo: Caroline Tompkins/The New York Times
Photo: Caroline Tompkins/The New York Times

On a recent evening, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe was in his home office in Westchester County, toying with a story idea that involved the Russian mafia. Before calling it a day, he printed a trove of related documents and left them in a stack on his printer tray. When he returned the next morning, he found that someone had taken one of the pages — a picture of a dead body inscribed with a threatening message in Cyrillic letters — and placed it on his desk. The culprit had added a single word to the page: No.

As a staff writer at The New Yorker, Keefe has written about all kinds of disreputable figures — an international arms broker, hackers, a dubious diamond dealer, a mass shooter, and the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, to name just a few — and this wasn’t the first time someone had tried to get him to beg off a story. While working on Empire of Pain, his 2021 book about the Sackler family’s role in the opioid epidemic, Keefe came to believe the family had hired an investigator to intimidate him by loitering outside his home. This time, however, the intimidation campaign was coming from inside the house.

“Every time he tells me a new story idea, I feel like I have a mini–heart attack. ‘Oh jeez, another litigious asshole or murderous criminal? Can’t you do a celebrity profile or something?’” says Keefe’s wife, Justyna Gudzowska, an attorney who specializes in international financial-crime policy. “Patrick is intrigued by all of the bad guys.”

Keefe insists that his predisposition toward “bad guys” is not a point of tension in his marriage, but his new book, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks (Doubleday), is proof of his nearly undivided focus on scoundrels. After the enormous success of Empire of Pain and 2018’s Say Nothing, a murder procedural set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Ireland, Keefe’s latest is a collection of 12 stories drawn from his work at The New Yorker and a reminder of his command of the magazine thriller.

“I need a story about people. I always start from the ground up. There may be some kind of particular 30,000-foot phenomenon that’s interesting, but I have to find an anecdotal way into it,” Keefe says, sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park on a recent sunny afternoon. “I’m often thinking about these kinds of questions of the specific and the universal and to what degree can we empathize with people even if they’ve done awful things.”

The appetite for stories about people who do awful things has never been higher. Magazines have embraced the era of true crime with cash-starved glossies selling the rights to 8,000-word, already fact-checked features to streaming services. There is peril in that bargain: Narratives sometimes read as if they’ve been engineered for Netflix; vulnerable sources, who are often victims, can feel exploited; and lurid storytelling can romanticize, or absolve, criminals. But Keefe’s work is mindful of the havoc his subjects unleash on their victims, their families, and the institutions around them.

“In his hands, an abyss becomes a mirror. You end up learning what is the vulnerability or the vanity of the culture that got taken in by this person or that allowed this criminal to triumph or prosper. That’s why I feel like his work, admittedly emerging during a time when there is a grifting-journalism economy, stands out as singular,” says Daniel Zalewski, Keefe’s longtime editor at The New Yorker.

Keefe has a natural tendency to key in on his subjects’ family lives as a means of interrogating their motives. In Rogues, nowhere does that tendency serve a story better than in the case of Amy Bishop, a disgruntled former science professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who killed three colleagues and injured three others in a 2010 mass shooting. Years before her rampage, when Bishop was 21, she’d shot and killed her 18-year-old brother. Keefe tirelessly reported on that time period, making trips to Bishop’s hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts. His reporting pointed to a theory that Bishop’s parents had called their son’s murder an accident instead of facing the horror of fratricide. Keefe landed a series of interviews with Bishop’s parents, Judy and Sam, and laid out his theory for them.

“I was able to home in on some of the inconsistencies in Judy’s story. But, of course, I didn’t feel any sense of triumph. Cruel is the wrong word. I felt great empathy, because I felt these were two people who, in order to survive, had constructed a universe of denial. And there I was poking holes in that edifice,” Keefe says. “They called me the night before the piece came out. It had been through fact-checking already. Sam said, ‘We want you to know that whatever happens with the piece, we’re really glad that we told our story to you.’ Which meant the world to me. The next day, the piece came out, and they haven’t spoken to me since.”

While Rogues represents 15 years of magazine writing, it’s Keefe’s relatively recent work that launched him to a level of success few journalists ever reach. Say Nothing was a New York Times best-seller and optioned as a limited series on FX. In the spring of 2020, as the U.S. went into lockdown, Keefe released Wind of Change, an eight-episode podcast in which he investigated the mysterious origins of the Cold War–era anthem of the same name by glam-metal band the Scorpions. It was picked up by Hulu. A year later, Keefe published Empire of Pain, which also quickly became a New York Times best-seller.

At 46, Keefe is tall and lean with a sharp nose and a trimmed thicket of salt-and-pepper hair. He’s painstakingly affable — a manner that surely serves him well as a reporter. We’re eating chicken sandwiches from a trendy Indian restaurant Keefe was eager to try. A self-described “dedicated eater,” he doesn’t have much time to explore the city’s culinary delights these days thanks to two young sons, work, and the promotional obligations that come with literary fame. He has just come from a podcast interview about Empire of Pain and, in 48 hours, he’ll be on a plane to the Maldives for the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is being held at a five-star resort there. His books have earned Keefe awards, a spot on late-night TV couches, shout-outs from A-list celebrities, and the chance to testify before Congress. I’ve heard that he no longer fields blurb requests from fellow authors, because there are simply too many.

“It’s ridiculous,” he says of the Maldives trip. “Next month, I’m going to Ireland and doing a bunch of speaking. I could never have imagined, until a few years ago, saying no to that kind of opportunity. But I’ve had to start saying no to stuff, because the last thing I want to do is keep running a victory lap for work that came out over a year ago.”

Keefe grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the son of an urban planner and a professor of philosophy. After undergrad at Columbia, Keefe went to Cambridge and the London School of Economics. Even as he was collecting master’s degrees unrelated to journalism, Keefe always knew where he wanted to end up.

“Working at The New Yorker was always his dream job,” says Gudzowska, who also studied at Cambridge and LSE. “I found this incredibly pretentious when I met him, but we were living in the U.K. together and he’d find the newsstands that got The New Yorker earlier than the other newsstands and insist on going there as soon as the issue came out.”

After England, Keefe and Gudzowska enrolled at Yale Law School, where Keefe took a year off to write his first book, Chatter, about the U.S.-eavesdropping-surveillance network. In 2006, the same year Chatter was published, Keefe sold his first story to The New Yorker, about Sister Ping, a prolific human smuggler in Chinatown, which Keefe would expand into his second book, The Snakehead.

“He sent in a pitch, and it was so strong that I immediately agreed to work with him,” said Zalewski. “What was clear was that he could see that it was a crime operation, but that he was most interested in the complex motivations that had led her to embark on this endeavor to both help and exploit her community. It was that awareness of the double edge that caught my eye.”

If there is a cinematic quality to Keefe’s work, that’s because he plainly admits to drawing inspiration from the structure, pacing, and reveals in movies. When Keefe flew to Paris to interview an HSBC computer technician he’d pitched to his editors as “the Edward Snowden of Swiss banking,” he quickly realized he was sitting across from a compulsive liar. At first, Keefe thought he needed to scuttle the story, because he couldn’t build a feature around such an unreliable subject. Then he remembered The Informant!, a 2009 Matt Damon film about a disastrous FBI source, and it inspired him to lean into the unreliability of his subject. While trying to make it as a magazine writer, Keefe briefly worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, adapting a Jo Nesbø novel for Channing Tatum and writing a script about Somali pirates for Jerry Bruckheimer. (“It is a mercy to the world that that didn’t get made and Captain Phillips did,” he says.)

Back at Tompkins Square Park, Keefe is finishing the last few bites of his sandwich before getting back to work on a story about a CIA hacker on trial for allegedly leaking a massive cache of files to WikiLeaks. Before leaving, I ask whether he regrets any part of his interviews with Bishop’s parents. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says. “It’s a thing that I wrestle with not so much ethically but emotionally. It’s the Janet Malcolm thing, right? When you sit down to write, if you are pulling punches on behalf of the people you’re writing about, you’re not doing your job. There may be a necessary and inescapable cruelty in that. Which emotionally is hard for me but, professionally, I feel fine with.”

Patrick Radden Keefe Is One of the Good Guys