Jane Britton was murdered early in the morning on January 7, 1969 and no one knew hew did it until just a few years ago. In the fifty-odd years that passed after Britton was killed, stories and rumors swirled. Men were accused. Secrets were kept. In We Keep the Dead Close, Becky Cooper recounts her attempts to find out what happened to Britton all those years ago, right up until a stunning revelation changed everything.
Jane Britton was a graduate student at Harvard’s anthropology department when she died. While there was some concern about whether or not she’d graduate with a degree, Britton had recently finished a season at Tepe Yahya, an important site in Iran. After Britton was murdered, red ochre was found with her body. She was posed in such a way that it looked to the detectives that her death couldn’t be random. And all of the rumors about her started to come out into the open. She’d had an affair with a professor, no, two professors. She was afraid of a past boyfriend. No, that boyfriend was gay and they never actually dated. Over the years, Britton’s death became a myth that the anthropology grad students would share with each other. Once Cooper heard the story from one of those students, sometime in the 1990s, she found that she had to know what really happened.
I expected a book in the vein of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark, another literary true crime book. We Keep the Dead Close has a lot of that. Cooper has a flair for bringing the late 1960s back to life, as well as creating vivid portraits of the people she interviews. What makes this book really unique is the way that Cooper uses Britton’s life and death to show us the dark side of academia at Harvard. The thing that I’ve learned from reading mystery novels and true crime is that investigations shine a bright light on everything. They can make small grudges into big grievances and little inconsistencies into huge suspicions. For example, one of the major suspects in Britton’s murder is Dr. Karl Lemberg-Karlovsky. Rumor had it that Britton had an affair with Lemberg-Karlovsky that didn’t end well and that he was planning on trying to fail Britton out of Harvard’s program. It’s hard not to see Lemberg-Karlovsky as a villain. Cooper gets through the rumors to discover that he really is short-tempered and spiteful—enough that we have to wonder if maybe he didn’t snap.
Another thing that really struck me about Cooper’s account is how she constantly reminds us just how long it took for her family and friends—and even the men under suspicion—had to wait to find out who killed Jane Britton. All those decades went by while the Cambridge PD kept the case close to its collective chest. So much time passed while small DNA samples languished in labs before the technology was available to match them to a suspect. Most of the time, mystery novels race from crime to conclusion. Cold cases are pretty rare. They’re more common in true crime but, even then, time is compressed for the audience. Cooper truly conveys a sense of waiting while she crawls through archives, finds people to interview, and follows hunches into dead ends.
We Keep the Dead Close is a remarkable book. I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy true crime, but who want something more than harrowing details and swift justice. I daresay that We Keep the Dead Close is one of the truest true crime books I’ve ever read.