"The Mastermind" by Evan Ratliff; Random House (480 pages, $28)
In early 2016, I broke a surreal tale about how DEA investigators in Minneapolis helped take down a global drug kingpin whose illicit activities were of a magnitude beyond anything that the most skilled crime novelists could conjure up.
By that time, journalist Evan Ratliff was already more than a year on the trail of Paul Calder Le Roux, a portly computer programmer born in Southern Rhodesia who helmed a network of prescription pill websites that raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. Ratliff, founder of the Atavist Magazine, spent years traveling to the Philippines, Brazil, Vietnam, Israel and Minnesota to piece together the story of the gifted and ruthless man behind a $300 million prescription drug empire that also supported international gunrunning and a failed effort to sustain his own militia in Somalia.
Several current and former DEA agents from Minnesota factor prominently in Ratliff's "The Mastermind," whose wide cast of characters also includes a former hit man for Le Roux, the mole who helped agents capture him and several of his employees who worked under fear of death. When Le Roux finally appeared in a St. Paul federal courtroom in 2017, he casually admitted to ordering the deaths of at least seven people he believed had crossed him. He won't be prosecuted for those crimes, and in an even more unusual twist, he has helped build federal cases against some of his former underlings in a deal that could find Le Roux back out into the world within the next decade.
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Ratliff's experience in reporting on the intersection of crime and technology is a major assist in helping readers understand how Le Roux embodies a possible new wave of tech-savvy drug kingpins. "The Mastermind" occasionally threatens to be weighed down by the sheer scope of its characters and details from courtroom proceedings. But that is as much of a commentary on just how wide a criminal web Le Roux wove. Ratliff succeeds in bringing the reader with him through his exhaustive investigation into trying to find and understand Le Roux, a work still very much in progress.
"Over the years I've prided myself on working the biggest and best cases," a now-retired DEA agent told Ratliff. "Le Roux is the guy. He's the smartest drug dealer I've ever faced."
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