We Keep the Dead Close is not a great example of true crime fiction and in lesser hands, it would not be a good book period. Becky Cooper leaves no stone unturned, no archaeological dig unexcavated in getting to the bottom of Jane Britton’s murder. That part is familiar. But she is also taking a deeper look at the narratives we tell ourselves to get through the day and understand the world. Which is a broader point to make, though she makes it well.
I can’t emphasize enough: if you want to write true crime, please don’t write it like this. Cooper is able to make mundane details and interviews sound interesting because she’s a talented and, I’m assuming from what I read of her endeavors in the book, hardworking writer. But too much of this tale is comprised of pages that could have been paragraphs, paragraphs that could have been sentences. She tries to make every lead sound interesting, while some of them just aren’t.
But again, this works because she writes well and because the book is more about the granular detail of pursuing the past, especially when powerful elements don’t want to be pursued, and trying to understand the truth even when it doesn’t satisfy.
Lastly, I was hoping this would be more of an indictment on Harvard’s culture and while there is some of that, particularly with a focus on the male-dominant world of anthropology and archaeology respectively, it’s really adjacent to the story more than a focal point. Hate to spoil but Harvard did not cover up Jane’s murder. The truth of it, which you can discover on your own, is horrifying in its manner and also almost irrelevant when compared to how Cooper tells the story.