I find most true crime stories helplessly fascinating. I know some people agonize over whether it is moral to be entertained by such stories, but I’ve never had that problem, and frankly think it’s a waste of time to think about the “morality” of what stories we consume. I think most people are drawn to true crime not because they get their jollies out by reveling in other people’s pain (though, there’s always a few . . . ) but because it speaks to our own fears. It’s the same reason people are drawn to horror films: you stare the fear in the face and something about that is comforting. I think a more interesting question to ask than “Is this moral?” is: “Why is this compelling?” The best true crime books are ones that face this question head on. Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close is one of those.
Becky Cooper was a Harvard undergrad herself when she first heard the story of the graduate student who had been murdered by the famous archaeology professor she was having an affair with, and that he was still teaching there forty years later. The people she heard the story from swore up and down it was true and not an urban legend. Hearing the story again and again from different people, something about it began to draw her in, an open secret that everyone seemed to know. Most people who talked about didn’t even know the woman’s name, and that felt wrong to Becky. Thus began a decade long project of researching the life and death of Jane Britton, trying to find her killer and make sense of her story.
You know from page one that Jane’s killer is eventually found, but Cooper brings us along on her journey before giving us the answers. The book is almost written in the style of a whodunnit, complete with red herrings. It’s tempting once you know the case was solved to Google it, but I resisted and was glad that I did. Cooper has a gift for narrative, and a way with words. She layers the story in a really interesting way, flashing back and forth in short chapters between the events back in 1969 (constructed after gaining access to the case files), the timeline of her investigation, and present day.
Along the way, we get to know the author as much as we get to know Jane. She’s very open about how and why the case consumed her. She also never misses an opportunity to point out the larger arcs of things she is discovering along the way, and what she ends up painting a picture of is the sexist and often corrupted culture of privileged academia (and the field of archaeology in particular).
This book was incredibly well-written and engaging. I read it in two days, basically unable to put it down, and it’s a bit of a chonker. Even if you’re not normally a fan of true crime, this would be well worth a read. I’m going to have to buy my own copy after I return this one to the library. I feel like it sits happily in quality beside other genre classics like In Cold Blood and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. (All three authors share a penchant for getting uncomfortably close to their subjects, though Capote didn’t let that show in the actual book.)
Anyways, two thumbs up. Will read again.
CBR BINGO: People (When I see this cover from far away it looks like she’s wearing a hoodie? But it’s just her hair? Is this just me?)