Patrick Radden Keefe’s investigation into the Sacklers, the dynasty whose company Purdue Pharma sold the OxyContin painkiller which is said to have fuelled the US’s opioid crisis, has won the £50,000 Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction.
Keefe, who has said he was subject to surveillance and threats of legal action while writing Empire of Pain, beat titles including Harald Jähner’s look at life in Germany after the second world war, Aftermath, and poet and novelist Kei Miller’s essay collection Things I Have Withheld, to win the prize. The Baillie Gifford is the UK’s top award for non-fiction, won in the past by writers such as Antony Beevor and Barbara Demick.
“We were completely bowled over as a group of judges by Empire of Pain. By its moral rigour, its controlled fury, its exhaustive research, the skilful writing, the bravery it took to write it. Above all, though, by its sheer propulsive narrative energy,” said chair of judges Andrew Holgate.
The book delves into the history of the Sackler family, looking at how a dynasty formerly known for its large philanthropic donations to arts institutions drew much of its wealth from the company making and marketing OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription painkiller.
Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker who previously won the Orwell prize for Say Nothing, his investigation into the murder of Jean McConville by the IRA in 1972, accessed thousands of private documents while writing Empire of Pain, conducting more than 200 interviews to tell his story.
“As I was doing my reporting, there were moments where my eyes would bug out of my head. I was shocked. I kept thinking I couldn’t be more shocked. Then I would be,” he told the Observer earlier this year.
Keefe told NPR that the Sacklers had “really thrown a lot of energy into trying to thwart this project from its very inception”, sending legal letters and threatening legal action. “I had a moment last summer where my house was being staked out by a private investigator. You know, I can’t say for sure that the Sacklers sent him. But I can tell you I wasn’t working on any other projects at the time and that when I asked them, actually, in a request for comment whether they were responsible for this, they declined to comment,” he said.
Holgate said that the story Keefe had mined in Empire of Pain was exceptionally important, also praising “the skill with which he has told his jaw-dropping tale, and how immersive and unputdownable he has made the telling”.
“This is journalism as outstanding literature, and what we have here is a future classic,” said Holgate, the literary editor of the Sunday Times, who was joined on the judging panel by the novelist Sara Collins, the physicist and writer Dr Helen Czerski, historians Kathryn Hughes and Dominic Sandbrook, and the author and broadcaster Johny Pitts.
Last year’s award was won by Craig Brown for his biography of the Beatles, One, Two, Three, Four.