We Keep the Dead Close is a true crime book that brings a refreshingly introspective voice. Becky Cooper first hears about the murder of Jane Britton from a snippet of campus lore. The story fascinates her and the more she learns the more she wants to know. How is it that decades later her murder remains unsolved? Did Harvard shut down the investigation to protect a popular archeology professor? Over several years, her investigation gets closer to understanding Jane and filling out the cast of suspects. In the end, though, DNA delivers what seems to be the final word. Or does it?
What sets We Keep the Dead Close apart from the usual true crime is that Cooper examines Britton’s murder in the light of academic sexism and the harassment and violence against women in the schools and on archeological digs. The misogyny is explicit and shocking and yet accepted for so long because those who cavil are punished. Cooper also examines the idea of narrative being more powerful than facts, something that is so timely in this era of “alternative facts.” For example, the powerful professor was actually wrong about his most important find, but the narrative is more powerful than that fact.
More importantly, Cooper and the many other people who sought an answer to what happened to Jane Britton are disappointed by the facts presented by DNA, preferring their own narratives. I appreciate Cooper’s honesty in admitting how deflating the DNA resolution was and how much she longed for a better narrative.
I loved We Keep the Dead Close and I am not fond of true crime. This is so much more than a true-crime story, though. It is also a sociological examination of Harvard University, a study of women’s position in academia, and an honest self-examination of the author herself. It was fascinating from the first page to the last. It is about the world of Jane Britton and who she was. In We Keep the Dead Close, Jane Britton’s life matters more than her death and that makes it remarkable.
I received an ARC of We Keep the Dead Close from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.