Ratliff’s book emerged from several articles he wrote for the online magazine The Atavist. Three weeks after “The Mastermind” was published, a second book, Elaine Shannon’s HUNTING LEROUX (Morrow, $27.99), came out. Shannon, a journalist, has worked closely in the past with the Drug Enforcement Administration and she clearly had access to the two elite agents who helped take down Le Roux. But her book is less broadly sourced than Ratliff’s — and not as haunting.
A quick disclaimer: I, too, became obsessed with Le Roux after chasing him and his spectral story for The New York Times years ago. (In “The Mastermind,” the author briefly mentions the articles I wrote.) Much like Ratliff, I recall the bleary nights on Google thinking I’d struck gold when I stumbled across Le Roux’s name in incorporation papers for a mysterious firm in Hong Kong or a United Nations dossier on the Somalian arms trade. I also recall the nausea that gripped me when Le Roux slipped back into the shadows, and the gold I thought I’d found turned into mist.
All of which is to say that, aside from the other triumphs of “The Mastermind,” Ratliff clearly deserves this year’s Award for Dogged Journalism for staying on his target until the very end. Without spoiling his story, the end arrives with yet another twist when, after years of living out of sight, Le Roux shows up, in the flesh, in two separate federal courtrooms.
[ Read this account of the drug lord’s testimony in one of his trials: “In a spellbinding two-day turn as a prosecution witness, Mr. Le Roux confessed to an astonishing array of crimes.” ]
Ratliff’s efforts fail only when he tries to lash his story to sweeping themes (Le Roux as the first great outlaw of the digital age) or to root it in current events (Le Roux’s supposed role in heightening the opioid crisis). While both of these ideas are likely true, they struck me as the sort of unnecessary stretches that a publishing executive might suggest.
The fact is, Ratliff’s tale is unique, so strange and so compelling, it is almost better left to float alone in its cloud of “adjacent reality.” That, of course, is where it already exists — close to, but just beyond, the world we recognize: out there, on its own, in a state of shimmering drift.