Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe won the Baillie Giffard Prize for Non-Fiction last year and examines the history of three generations of the Sackler family. Radden Keefe is a journalist for the New Yorker and ‘Empire of Pain’ was developed from his 2017 article about the Sacklers. The Sackler name is mostly associated with philanthropy. Several universities, museums and galleries have wings named after the family in recognition of the substantial donations they have made towards the arts and sciences. However, the Sacklers’ role in the development of the highly addictive drug OxyContin in 1996 and the subsequent opioid crisis in the United States has only recently become subject to proper scrutiny.
The first part of the book is a biography of the first generation of Sacklers – Arthur and his younger brothers Mortimer and Raymond – who trained as doctors and later owned the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, making their fortune selling Valium. The second part looks more in depth at the workings of Purdue Pharma and how the Sacklers ensured that addicts were presented as the problem and denied personal responsibility for the opioid crisis. This is despite evidence that the dangers of how OxyContin was being used were known early on and that the Sacklers pioneered the aggressive advertising methods of direct selling to physicians that made them so rich. The final section trawls through the various lawsuits involving Purdue Pharma up to the present day, and explores how the second and third generations of the Sacklers are handling their family legacy (not very well it turns out).
As well as winning prestigious book awards, ‘Empire of Pain’ has received what I consider to be one of the rarest accolades in the literary world – a wholly positive review in Private Eye magazine whose books section is usually reserved for hatchet jobs. It is an exceptional piece of investigative narrative non-fiction and a meticulously researched and fluently written account of corporate greed. I will definitely seek out Radden Keefe’s book ‘Say Nothing’ about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The Baillie Giffard Prize judges recognised another excellent book about corruption last year by shortlisting Fall by John Preston which also won the Costa Biography Award earlier this month and recounts the life of the publishing tycoon and fraudster Robert Maxwell. Born as Jan Hoch in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1923, several members of his family were murdered in the Holocaust. Settling in England after the Second World War, he was Labour MP for Buckingham from 1964 to 1970, and later owned several publishing companies and newspapers, becoming a billionaire media mogul and a prominent rival of Rupert Murdoch.
The book’s subtitle is “the mystery of Robert Maxwell”, and there are certainly plenty of them here. Maxwell gave various conflicting accounts of his past including how he escaped the Nazis. He adopted numerous personas before settling on the name Robert Maxwell and it is likely that he was involved in espionage activity. His behaviour towards his wife Betty and their children was often cruel and manipulative. Most puzzling of all are the circumstances surrounding his death which have never been fully explained, when Maxwell’s body was discovered floating in the water close to his yacht in late 1991. It wasn’t until the months that followed his death that it became apparent that Maxwell had robbed millions of pounds from the pension funds of his companies. Some thirty years later, Preston does an excellent job of unpicking the many contradictions of his subject’s larger than life and hugely flawed character in a gripping and fascinating account.