Review: We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper

I don’t read True Crime normally as I find it depressing and disturbing but this book has been highly praised and deals with a case I had heard of, the 1969 murder of Jane Britton at Harvard. It is a well written book that does not require you to understand anything about American campus life to follow and that has been widely praised for its reflections on women and power in academia and institutional privilege and a lot of other really important stuff.  And yes it does that, and there is a fascinating story with 5 main suspects and several other missing and murdered women, and it is a real page turner. But…

Spoilers: probably best not to proceed if you intend to read this. I mean it is presented like a whodunit, and I am going to reveal that…

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Still here? OK so there is a really strong case built by the author and various true crime researchers against three separate Harvard professors; and a couple of minor suspects. Cooper looks in to each in great depth and it is really well done.  The victim was an anthropologist who had been on an archaeological dig in Iran: she was found dead in her apartment with red ochre thrown over her, and fur coats and blankets piled on top of the body. As red ochre was used in burial rites thousands  of years ago in cultures all around the world this ritual element suggested she was killed by an anthropologist.

So the sleazy line up of suspects appears, and the key one seems to have played up to the rumours he killed her. And everyone at Harvard knew it was him, but the uni covered it up. Except…

He didn’t. After 300 exhausting pages of investigation of all the academic suspects, and boy are they suspect — DNA testing is finally done and the murderer is revealed as a burglar rapist and petty crook who died in prison twenty years ago. Underclass, not academic, Black. Cooper in particular is disappointed he is just a stereotypical bogeyman: he raped and murdered other women, but neither he nor they get much attention. This is a book about a murder where the actual murderer is really a footnote.

The worst bit? I predicted this twenty pages in. Ada Bean a 50 year old secretary was killed in a similar way in the same district within a month and left under blankets: no red ochre though, but the crimes appear similar, though the police dismissed the identical MO as a copycat or coincidence because no red ochre. Because there was no connection between the women they could not be linked. Except of course if a burglar was raping and killing random women…

Yet Cooper almost completely dismisses Ada Bean: I feel she appears on one page, and is referred to in passing a couple more times. Whereas the wealthy, outspoken and bohemian Jane is celebrated throughout, and Cooper increasingly identifies with her and grows to “befriend” her and let her influence her own life and relationships, Bean is dismissed. Unrelatable? A retired fifty year old secretary lacks glamour: her brutal death becomes a footnote. Yet almost certainly looking at that case and other rapes would have thrown a very different light on the case. And it is not that the author narrows the focus exclusively to Jane: another young female academic’s disappearance gets a couple of chapters. 

Also Harvard does not seem to have actually covered anything up and cooperated with the police throughout. Yes several professors were alcoholic, sleazy or dodgy but they are not protected by the institution. That angle is much promised and “Me Too” gets mentioned but there is little real depth to it. Harvard apparently allowed relationships between faculty and students until only a few years back: now postgraduates are allowed to date professors, but not undergraduates. In fact one of the few interesting bits here was that while women have only had Harvard degrees since 2000 and had Radcliffe (the women’s college) also on their degrees till then the female alumni bemoan the loss: the erasure of the Radcliffe tradition that occurred with that.

Yes Jane dated professors; lots of girls did, but where the power lay in those relationships strikes me as more complicated than I expected. Jane was a pretty cool character and I can see why Cooper came to identify with her: but ultimately she herself inhabits like Jane a world of incredible privilege – the author gets free room and board in a Harvard colonial senate property for baking cookies three times a year for a function while she researches the crime, dates an intelligence agent who buys her Palantir software access as a gift, etc, etc…

Cooper tells Jane’s story with her own; but her own is very lightly sketched, and while we learn a lot about her feelings towards Jane and increasing identification it feels like the editor stripped the author out of the story, and what is left is an uncomfortable feeling of a shadow woman mourning the death of a talented and glamorous woman. More of Cooper in the story might have helped– she sounds at least as interesting as Jane?

Yes was Jane really glamorous? The author insists she was but she seems to have been  highly intelligent woman who struggled a bit in archaeology on site, had an emotionally distant boyfriend she was besotted with and who liked to sleep with people she met because she could. She was no beauty or icon: she was a very real down to earth woman with a scathing ability to put people down and piss them off. She sounds fun, bawdy and annoying, not the romanticised figure of the true crime victim.

I was also a bit uncomfortable in how intrusive it felt as Cooper hunts down family and friends, but guess that goes with the genre. Becky Cooper though seems to be a good hearted woman and an excellent writer: look forward to seeing more from her.

So if you love whodunits you will hate this book; the end is a crushing anticlimax. And by twenty pages in you have learned the Red Ochre that gave the murder its name was probably not that: possibly just red paint. Which takes us back to Ada Bean and the true lesson of this book: if you are going to be murdered be witty, sexy and aspirationally relatable  — but above all be middle class or you will be just a footnote in someone else’s story, and finally make sure you are murdered by someone interesting… 😦

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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