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 that from at a dig they’d worked 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.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.