Unraveling the Myth of a Harvard Murder

We Keep the Dead Close, by Becky Cooper (Bookshop.org)

I complain a lot, A LOT about the spate of true crime books in the last few years where an author with no or minimal connection to a crime they find interesting writes a book about it that’s also memoir, and inserts themselves into the story to terrible navel-gazing effect. It’s usually a case of the Charlie Kaufman/Orchid Thief problem I have to mention too often — looking at a story and deciding the most important thing you see in it is yourself.

I say all this to emphasize that Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close, despite being true crime crossed with memoir, sidesteps such pitfalls. It’s a good measuring stick for how this tricky genre can be handled in a best-case scenario, not only telling a story that’s respectful to a victim, sensitive to those still living, and revealing about a case, but artful in its personal elements.

Jane Britton, a graduate student at Harvard in archaeology, was murdered in her apartment, considered part of campus housing, in 1969. Her death became the stuff of campus lore, thanks in large part to a rumor that she’d been having an affair with a rising star professor, Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky, and was going to tell his wife so he killed her.

Around her body red ocher had been found, a pigment often used in ancient burials, like one they’d both worked at a dig together in Tepe Yahya, an ancient archaeological site in Iran. She’d also been covered with furs, eerie details lending a ritualistic appearance to her murder. And if it wasn’t the somewhat eccentric professor, why that specific staging at the scene?

Cooper had nothing to do with Jane’s story besides hearing about it while she attended Harvard as an undergraduate. The obvious sexism of the tale — even Jane’s name was frequently lost in the telling, although the professor continued to teach at Harvard and was well known — seems to have stoked Cooper’s interest in determining whether he actually got away with murder and kept his career to boot. Cooper said that during her own undergraduate days, she felt the power that Harvard had, and the possibilities it conveyed, “benign glimpses of Harvard’s ability to skirt the rules.”

This becomes a second story here, the protections afforded to a vaunted Ivy League institution that makes its own rules and protects its own at all costs. And Jane’s story quickly becomes more complicated than what the legend reduced it to. I’d like to write more in hopes of convincing you to read it but I’m afraid to give away too much.

In fact, maybe now is the best time to say — and I can’t stress this enough — do not google this case if you’re going to read the book. And if you read it, do not google it AT ALL during the reading of it. It is such a rare experience to be able to follow an investigation like this as the author herself unravels the many threads here, and eventually, amazingly, considering this case was long unsolved, gets an answer. It’s kind of incredible that all this happened during the writing of the book, while the author was amateur-investigating, but a resolution does finally come.

But getting to see how events unfold as she’s working things out for herself — and both Cooper’s deductive and detective skills are impressive — is such an intense experience. I hate to say this reads like a tense, thrilling mystery novel when it’s a true story, and many people still living are hurt by its events, but Cooper’s crafting of the narrative just makes it so. Despite her distance, the way Cooper researches and tells the story, and considers narratives and figures from every angle, was commendable.

The author’s own role in the story is for the most part a welcome one. She provides commentary of her changing thought process in the investigation, and her descriptions bring all of the people involved and the scenery to life. I especially loved one telling moment, when she’s going through boxes of the Tepe Yahya reports, and suddenly feels the proximity of the past: “I pulled my hands away from the notebooks and realized my fingertips were coated in the fine sand from the Tepe Yahya desert, and for an instant the years collapsed.”

This does have a few pages of strictly memoir that are thin in comparison, but they didn’t offend or feel as terribly out of place as they have in similar books. She makes a decent effort to explain her own obsession with the case, which amplifies the further she digs. I guess I understood that enough through her actions and the way she tells the story that I didn’t need the emotional personal details to illustrate.

As part of her very hands-on investigation, Cooper even audits classes, finding that Professor Karl is a consummate storyteller, both in teaching style and extending to his personal interactions, and observes that “We seemed to value memorability more than accuracy as long as no one forced us to look too closely.” That’s what she’s done here — forced the truth of a narrative into the light when for decades the myth has been allowed to hold sway.

In this vein, Cooper does something that, when possible, should always be the focus of any crime story: as a friend of Jane’s said, Cooper should give Jane her name back. According to that friend:

She was flawed. She had ambition. We’ll never know what might have happened to this person. What she might have done. Just give her her name and explain how this woman was complicated. She wasn’t this dumb young girl, and she wasn’t this vixen. She was like any of us. She was something in between.

She shares an excerpt from a letter Jane wrote to her boyfriend including the words, “Be my chronicler, so the tale of the Brit is told throughout the land, or at least that one person remembers me the way I am instead of the way they see me.” How heartbreaking that for so long that wasn’t the case. But this does justice to a promising young woman who deserved better in her life, but at least now has an answer, and an accurate story.

We Keep the Dead Close:
A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
by Becky Cooper
published November 10, 2020 by Grand Central

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

28 thoughts on “Unraveling the Myth of a Harvard Murder

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  1. Oh wow, great review! I’ve been curious about this one, and now I’m fully convinced. I knew it was the story of a controversial death at Harvard, but I didn’t realize the case found resolution while the author was digging- I’m glad there was some closure for those close to the case and sorry of course for those hurt by the situation, but the timing must’ve really made for an incredible narrative. And that it passes the true crime/memoir bar for you is high praise indeed!

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    1. I hadn’t realized that when I started reading it either! I’m so glad that I didn’t look up the case though, I nearly did but the storytelling was so compelling and feeling so mystery novel-like that I stuck with it. She makes it very rewarding, and it’s so intelligently framed. Rather than just, ok, here’s what happened, she puts it into context very well. I can’t recommend it enough, I thought it was fantastic.

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    1. Honestly, although there’s of course a terrible crime and many details around it at the heart of this, the book feels like much more. It’s an excellent narrative, cultural study and a nuanced look at feminism at Harvard in the late 60s. Just all around so much interesting stuff rolled up in it. I think you’d enjoy it!

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      1. You are right …I should take a broader look at the book. It is just the words ‘true crime’ gives me the shivers and I’m afraid I won’t be able to stomach all the details. Another excellent Australian writer is Helen Garner….she is just ‘the true crime writer’ I would read….crime yes, but an intense psychological analysis of the crime’s impact…on the victim’s family and especially on Helen Garner herself.

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      2. Oh I don’t know of Helen Garner! I need to look her up. Thanks for the tip. I think you’re not alone, true crime as a genre is definitely not for everyone and I think especially with how it’s traditionally been written – more lurid and sensational. But this was very sensitive and respectful. And so many other interesting bits of history and culture. I didn’t get to it in the review but there was also a lot about archaeology and anthropology, women’s work in these fields, etc. Just fascinating!

        There were some difficult details to stomach in this one, but I thought handled sensitively and never without a purpose. Hope that helps.

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    1. It’s well worth the read, I promise! But definitely don’t research the case itself, and hopefully other reviews will leave out all the details. It’s just unusual in nonfiction, I think, for things to play out like they did here and she crafts the narrative so impressively.

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  2. This sounded so good, I didn’t just put it on my TBR list, I put in on hold at the library this morning. An estimated two week wait, I figured, was perfect for finishing my book in progress. Fast forward to this evening: “Action required: Tempe Public Library digital hold available to borrow…” Dang it! 😉

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    1. I promise it, this one is totally worth clearing your schedule for! It was one that I started to read along with whatever else I had open at the time and then ended up ignoring everything else and staying up late for 😉 It’s completely absorbing and really smart. I’m glad you could get it so quickly and excited to hear what you think of it!

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  3. Your review was such a great read, thank you. You write so well. I am totally on board for this book. Can’t wait. And thank you for the warning about googling, I do often do that and would hate to spoil it for myself. I am with you re writer putting themselves into the story for no reason, I like an almost invisible journalistic touch to true crime writing. If I want involved personal stuff from the narrator I can read crime fiction which as we all know, is chocked full of messed up detectives with complex personal lives who sit up all night drinking whisky yet are still able to operate the next day and are still strangely attractive etc etc (add other tropes as required..)

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    1. Oh thank you so much! That really means a lot to me. Actually I was so pleased with myself that I didn’t google it while reading because I almost always do — had a busy work week to thank for that, but ended up really grateful because it did feel like an unusual experience for nonfiction. So often we already know the outcome and just reading for the details and commentary, but this is best to go in completely blind.

      There was one true crime that was really more memoir and the author basically envisioned himself as exactly what you’re describing — all the cliched tropes of noir detective fiction. It was atrocious and so sad, because he just made this case all about him in the most ridiculous way. Why are publishers giving money for this shit??

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  4. A beautiful review! I’ve been struggling with how to write mine without giving too much away, so reading yours has also been a huge help. Particularly with how it is like a mystery/thriller – I was startled by my cat while reading and jumped a foot in their air because I was so deep into the narrative!

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    1. Oh that makes me so happy to hear! I’m glad I could give you some guidance in that because I struggle terribly myself in how to approach reviewing sometimes. Excited to read yours!

      I feel bad saying it reads like a novel in this case but it’s how well she structured it, really. And getting to know every suspect and person who could give some insight about Jane. It was kind of brilliant, really! And same, it left me so unnerved…there was an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that she cultivated as well, in addition to how it just sucks you in!

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  5. I’m always glad to get your opinion on whether a true crime story has handled this difficult topic in a sensitive, victim-focused way! This and Lost Girls are definitely moving up my to-read list, although they’re competing with a desire to read all my own books so I can get rid of them and make some space as I move. I had no idea this author was actually part of or covering the solving of this crime. It is rare to get that much resolution in a true crime story and I think I’d enjoy that aspect of this book.

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    1. I know what you mean, I do the same when moving — anything to lighten things up a bit! I thought this one handled this as sensitively and respectfully as possible, while still being honest, which was all a very fine line to walk. If only they all were like this! I thought it was really rare to see too, that things reached a resolution even as she was researching it. She wasn’t really part of the solving of it, I think just started investigating it at the right time. I really think you’d like it – it loops in so many other topics too, around women in science and academia especially, that I think would interest you 🙂

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