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One Good Thing: An incredible true crime book about the problems with true crime books

We Keep the Dead Close explores a murder at Harvard, the world of archeology, and the stories we tell about crime.

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A woman, looking straight at the camera, seen through a red filter.
Jane Britton features on the cover of We Keep the Dead Close.
Grand Central Publishing

In some ways, Becky Cooper’s true crime book We Keep the Dead Close gives in to some of the genre’s worst impulses. Cooper spends a ton of time explaining her investigative process in lieu of just telling readers what happened, she includes seemingly irrelevant personal details about her life, she sometimes reduces the central murder victim in her story to a cipher, and she covers a crime that was solved while she was reporting on it — so anyone who gets bored can just look up “the ending” online.

What ultimately makes the book great is that, in Cooper’s case, all of these choices are very much intentional. We Keep the Dead Close is the rare work that functions as both a really strong example of the genre it exists in and a critique of that genre. It’s a true crime book that isn’t sure of anyone’s need for a true crime book.

At first blush, the case at the center of We Keep the Dead Close seems to be a fascinating puzzle. In 1969, Jane Britton, a 24-year-old Harvard student, is found dead in her bed, bludgeoned by an unknown assailant. Britton was an archeology student, and elements of what happened to her evoke an ancient burial ritual, particularly the scattering of a metallic powder called “red ochre” around her body.

The culprit wasn’t caught, and the case languished, unsolved, for decades. A whisper network insisted that Harvard was leaning on the police to mount a coverup. What’s more, the rumor mill said Harvard was protecting one of its own: a prominent professor who murdered Britton after she threatened to expose an affair between the two.

By the time Cooper first hears Britton’s story as a Harvard undergrad in the early 2010s, she writes, it has become almost a folk tale about how powerful institutions protect powerful men who do horrible things. As she goes on to research the book over the course of the ensuing decade, powerful institutions protecting powerful men who do horrible things becomes a recurring theme in America’s national dialogue, true crime media blows up into a huge sensation, and in 2018, authorities actually identify the person they believe killed Britton. Had Cooper published We Keep the Dead Close in, say, 2015, it would have seemed not just timely but prescient — even without naming a likely culprit. As it stood when it was published in late 2020, the book could have felt like it was playing catch-up.

Instead, We Keep the Dead Close becomes almost a meditation on why books like this exist in the first place. Her comparison of the Jane Britton story to a folk tale is apt: We often use stories about grisly murders as a kind of warning about the darkness at society’s core. We might tell these stories as a proxy for offering individual guidance — “Don’t go out after dark in a big city,” to use an example I heard endlessly as a child that turned out to be flawed.

Just as often, however, a tale of murder can function as a way to confront societal power imbalances in an approachable, easily digestible way. Careful study of the sheer weight of gendered discrimination in America’s institutions is necessary, but as an undertaking, it can be a lot less compelling than reading about a pretty young woman with a vibrant, sometimes confrontational personality who suddenly winds up dead.

Of course, that young woman can no longer speak for herself. Simply by telling Britton’s story, Cooper comes to realize, she is contaminating the past with either what she wants to be true or with an incomplete understanding of that past based on what we know in the present. Much of We Keep the Dead Close deals with internal politics within the world of archeology and the tense interpersonal dynamics that develop on long digs out in the middle of nowhere. That focus turns out to have substantial thematic weight, in addition to providing a novel setting for a true crime tale. After all, archeologists and true crime writers do kind of the same thing: They try to piece together the past from scant details available in the present.

We Keep the Dead Close joins Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (both in its book and TV adaptation forms) and a few other recent titles as important works within a growing true crime movement. This movement aims to underscore just how deeply the act of reporting on a true crime story — especially one in the past — can alter and warp that story in ways that serve to destroy the truth, whatever that may be.

Both McNamara (who diligently traced the serial rapist and murderer dubbed the Golden State Killer) and Cooper disappeared into their research. Both used their research to highlight crimes that had been largely forgotten. The criminals in both of the cases they studied were eventually caught by authorities thanks in part to the authors’ efforts to force those cases back into the spotlight. But both women are also less interested in getting credit for their work than they are in the ways the crimes they cover underscore enormous gaps in how our society treats different groups of people. The cases they cover obliquely comment on structural misogyny, with a smattering of moments where structural classism and racism brush up against the stories of the victims and their killers.

In the end, We Keep the Dead Close explores how even knowing who committed a crime might never fully satisfy someone who becomes obsessed with an unsolved case might hope to know. With enough research and investigation, anyone can theoretically reconstruct the events of a murder — but no matter how thoroughly you investigate, and even if you can sit across from the perpetrator and ask them what happened and why, you can never truly know who the murder victim was. You can’t understand what they felt or thought in the moments leading up to their death. They’re forever closed off to you, a fixed point in time that cannot speak but can only be excavated with the utmost care.

We Keep the Dead Close is available from bookshop.org and other booksellers.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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