We Keep the Dead Close ~ by Becky Cooper

The other morning the Daily Special at Audible was a True Crime book and I haven’t read True Crime in ages.  I got it. Having read it, I might never get another one.  I think this may be one of the best True Crime books I’ve ever read and I’ve read some very good ones including Truman Capote’s  In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  (No, this isn’t as good as those.)  Otoh, it went a bit over the top in some ways.  

We Keep the Dead Close
By Becky Cooper
2020 / 507 pages
Read by author 15h 47m
Rating: A- 8.5 (literary True Crime) (Both read and listened) 

This is the story of a Harvard archeology graduate student who was murdered in her apartment back in 1969.  Becky Cooper took up the crime story in 2018, 49 years after the death of Jane Britton and the search for her killer.

It’s long and rather shaggy because Cooper doesn’t stick with “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”  She seems to want a lot of different kinds of truth, like scientific truth of DNA, the emotional truth of parental grief, the curious truth of the gossips, the victim’s truth, etc.  

 “On the car ride home, I reflected on the irony of all these archaeologists telling me that something was too far in the past. They claimed that there was no point in unearthing a truth from so long ago, but of course this claim stood in direct opposition to the central premise of their work. Sure, any story told about Jane was bound to be contaminated and flawed—a narrative used in service of a current purpose. But there was value in the truth preserved, and value in studying the distortions introduced and the nature of the details lost.”342

And she goes on to say that everyone who was interviewed by her had their own personal reasons for doing so. Cooper calls this “repurposing the past.”  She goes so far as to say about her own relationship with Jane, “[She] had become something to keep me company. A way to structure my life. Something to give it meaning.”  349

So, yes, this is an extraordinary book, much better than I anticipated when I got it. And I’m so glad I got the Kindle version to go with my listening because I ended up rereading sentences, paragraphs and even whole chapters for different reasons and then listening to that section again.  (Although authors should probably not read their own books. Somehow, I got used to it, she sounds like a writer.

This is as much a memoir as it is a true crime book – it’s Becky Cooper’s story of getting to the bottom (at least as far as she can) of Jane Britton’s death.  

It gets quite intense which I didn’t really expect.  And the reasons it gets intense have more to do with the way the tale is told than the True Crime of it.  At first I was put off by the digressions and then I realized that was part of a major point (theme?)!  She’s writing a memoir on how these types of investigations might go, maybe often go, rather than one which has a proscribed ending.  

“For every thread that appeared, I only had time to follow a few, and it was only in retrospect that any of them gained shape.” 353

She uses some other techniques of creative nonfiction – like cliff-hanger chapter endings. Now that’s not breaking with the “truth” of the story – it’s just telling it in her own way. She also gets rather flowery in places (mostly early on and toward the end) and she uses her own sense of chronology which is fairly complex anyway laced as it is with backstories and character building.

And there’s the frequent use of the present tense which increases from page 300 on,  and the very short chapters, both of which heighten the element of suspense. But then there are the really thoughtful comments like: “What would a culture look like, I wondered, that, recognizing the limitations of memory and rejecting the half-truths of reconstructions, discouraged nostalgia?” 350

 So this isn’t a history book or a chemistry book – it’s the memoir of a woman investigating the murder of a fellow student.

Cooper runs into a myriad of difficulties while writing this book. The actual murder took place probably 30 years before Cooper started writing and then it took her another 10 years to write! Although no one who was involved would forget the whole thing, memories get fuzzy. Cooper does the best she can.  

Also,  some departments are very highly competitive and they can be very gossipy places. So everyone has their own version of the story which either changes with time or gets cemented by repetition over time.

This is more along the lines of I’ll Be Gone in the Morning by Michelle McNamara than like a genre True Crime book or anything by Joe McGinnis, Ann Rule, or  Lawrence Schiller.  Because what happened is that Becky Cooper was writing the story of the search for the killer WHILE the investigation was still ongoing (by her anyway)

This means she has no “after the fact” mental framework or guidance.  I think she was able to do this because she used her notes almost directly -she didn’t start with the outcome of who was guilty in her thinking or in building the story.   (But I’m sure she had to edit and condense her notes so as to eliminate the really off base clues and suspects and make the narrative of salable length.)

Another difference is that this “cold case mystery” was solved while Cooper wrote the book. This is so unlike Lawrence Schiller and his book on Jon Benet Ramsey’s  unsolved murder, Cooper’s book has a conclusion. The book is about her search and the tangents it took as well as the ultimate resolution

Ultimately, the reader gets to follow most of Cooper’s ideas and leads and research and interviews as they happen – and then we get the truth,  for what it’s worth.  
I categorized it as “literary true crime” because there are literary themes here – themes dealing with murder investigations done by amateur as well as professional detectives. There are also themes of what Cooper calls “retrofitting” guilt into a narrative and wondering how much of the subject, Jane Britton is of her own making.

“And I was the one trapped in a game of symbols of my own invention, finding meaning where there was none to be found.”  176

So Cooper is analyzing her own investigation.  That’s not usually done in True Crime reports and books.  This is not an easy read if you take the time to understand it. 

 Academic university departments are gossipy places – and they’re chock full of competitive egos. Throw a murder into the mix and let it simmer a few years,  see what bubbles up,  About half-way through this fine book I was almost laughing – (Cooper is on her way to Rome and Bulgaria so she could feel the insanity as well as what dirt on the trowel felt like – ya.) 

 And there are soooo many names.  Deliberately. She interviewed and worked with lots of people. But I say deliberately because part of the point of this book is to show how detectives,  especially amateur sleuths, follow leads they “like” and ignore other possiblities.  They also often determine significance or culpability by the “likability” of the suspect or witness.  

“The rational part of me understood, then, that the search for significance in the sheer coincidence of Karl being connected to this missing woman was almost certainly more revealing of my ability to retrofit guilt into a narrative than it was of anything else.”  168

“Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark  and a few other recent titles are interesting books 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.”

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2 Responses to We Keep the Dead Close ~ by Becky Cooper

  1. I have been so keen to read this and now am even more so after reading your review. Definitely going to try and get my hands on it.


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