'We Keep The Dead Close' Review: True Crime Tale Revisits 1969 Murder At Harvard In We Keep the Dead Close, author Becky Cooper revisits the killing of Harvard graduate student Jane Britton. The 440+ page book is overstuffed with suspects, motives, red herrings and interviews.
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How A 1969 Murder At Harvard Turned Into A Cold Case And A 'Cautionary Tale'

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How A 1969 Murder At Harvard Turned Into A Cold Case And A 'Cautionary Tale'

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Book Reviews

How A 1969 Murder At Harvard Turned Into A Cold Case And A 'Cautionary Tale'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Harvard is a place that's especially aware of tradition and of its own past. But as Becky Cooper learned, some Harvard stories are whispered, not celebrated. Cooper's new book, "We Keep The Dead Close," is a true crime story about the murder of a Harvard graduate student. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The murder scene looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. That's the one thing that the multitudinous cast of witnesses, suspects and police detectives might agree on in "We Keep The Dead Close," Becky Cooper's just published account of a murder at Harvard that took place in 1969 and remained unsolved until two years ago. The victim was a 23-year-old graduate student in the anthropology department. Her name was Jane Britton. On the morning of January 7, 1969, her boyfriend, a fellow grad student, became concerned when Jane failed to show up at a lecture hall in Harvard's Peabody Museum.

Fellow grad students that morning were sweating through exams. When Jane's boyfriend finished his own exam, he walked over to her apartment in a dilapidated, poorly secured building owned by Harvard. There, he discovered Jane splayed out, face down on her mattress, which was covered in blood. Jane had been bludgeoned to death, perhaps with something small and sharp, like one of the archeological tools she'd used on a dig in Iran that past summer. Scattered around Jane's body was what looked to be red ochre, a powdery iron ore substance that's been found in ancient burial sites around the world. Adding to the ritualistic atmosphere of the murder scene was the fact that a piece of a colonial grave marker was also placed by Jane's body.

Becky Cooper first heard about the murder in 2009 when she was an undergrad at Harvard. As she writes, from the moment I heard the story, so much about it barbed me. Cooper would go on to spend over a decade investigating the cold case. After graduation, she eventually joined the editorial staff of The New Yorker. But as her involvement with the case deepened, Cooper would leave that job, moving on to Harvard's campus as a resident adviser and even embarking herself on an archaeological dig in Bulgaria, all in an effort to get closer to the crime and its victim. The result is an over 400-page true crime book that's overstuffed with suspects, motives, red herrings and interviews, as well as Cooper's first-person meditations about her own fascination with the case.

Reading "We Keep The Dead Close" is akin to what I imagine it would be like to dive into a trench at an archaeological site and start digging, not with a trowel but with a snow shovel. Cooper unearths tons of information here, but not every artifact deserves preserving. Indeed, by the time the case is closed in 2018, thanks to new developments in DNA testing, there's a feeling of exhaustion rather than satisfaction. Had Cooper sifted more judiciously through this detail, "We Keep The Dead Close" would have been a more memorable true crime narrative. But even in its unfiltered state, the book offers a vivid profile of one of the most prominent villains of this piece, one that, to a degree, still remains at large. That would be the sexist culture of academe, particularly at its most elite levels.

Cooper tells us that in 2009, when she first heard about Jane Britton's murder, the body was nameless, just another girl found dead. Even as she comes to learn so much about Jane's personality and family background, Cooper learns other things - for instance, that female grad students in Harvard's anthropology department until recently kept a secret file on Jane's murder that they handed down from one class to the next, and that they viewed her murder as a cautionary tale about the dangers that faced women in academe.

Cooper says Jane's story was still so alive in the community because it was an exaggerated horror movie version of a narrative that was all too common. Consider this - one of the prime murder suspects for a time was Jane's adviser. Cooper interviewed that now elderly professor and he told her that after Jane's death, he received a call from the dean who offered him Harvard's full support without reservation. Cooper recalls the professor grinned as he added, the dean didn't even ask me if I did it.

True crime isn't a particularly female literary preserve, but I think there's often an added element of identification when a woman writes about another woman's unsolved death. A recent example would be Emma Copley Eisenberg's "The Third Rainbow Girl" about the 1980 double murder of two young women in Appalachia. Like Eisenberg, Cooper is an obsessive and identifies fiercely with her subject. Even when this book threatens to buckle under the weight of detail, Cooper's resolve to excavate the truth about Jane's murder will keep a reader engaged enough to want to follow this case to its unexpected conclusion.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "We Keep The Dead Close" by Becky Cooper. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Harold McGee. He's famous for his books on the science of cooking. His new book, "Nose Dive," is about the sense of smell and explains everything from how our sense of smell affects how foods taste to why our own breath can smell so bad and why sweaty feet can smell kind of cheesy. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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