We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper 2020
I will warn you before you begin to read this review that in the course of reading this book, I became totally obsessed with the story, the characters, and the author. It’s uncommon for me to become this consumed by a book, to be eager to dive back into it the first thing in the morning after having struggled to stay awake reading it only hours earlier. So with that caveat….
This book tells the ten year saga of how Becky Cooper, Harvard ’08, a former New Yorker editorial assistant, the author of a wonderfully quirky book about mapping Manhattan along the 17 mile walk down Broadway from one end of NYC to the other, became enmeshed in investigating the murder of a Harvard graduate student that occurred in 1969, 50 years earlier. The victim, Jane Britten, had been found in her fourth floor Harvard Square apartment bludgeoned to death on January 7, 1969, and for nearly fifty years, the Cambridge Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Middlesex District Attorney were unsuccessful in solving the crime. Suspects were plentiful but evidence was scarce. Alibis were solid, but questions remained unanswered. Rumors and stories abounded to the point where a file on the murder was passed hand to hand from graduate student to graduate student over decades, but the case had not been solved.
Enter Becky Cooper who as an undergrad had heard the mythic tale of the murdered grad student, the swashbuckling Anthro professor who was her advisor and a key suspect, and the byzantine inner workings of the Anthropology Department, closely guarded by a publicity-averse Harvard and the police who seemed to be more than happy to keep this a ‘cold case’. Cooper became obsessed with the case and spent 10 years speaking to anyone remotely connected to the fifty year old murder, following leads from Bulgaria to Hawaii and places in between and even moving back to Adams House to work full time on the book.
The result is, to use an overworked word, AWESOME. I think the book would have benefited from some tighter editing (at 499 pages including a six page acknowledgement and 59 pages of endnotes), but it’s hard to argue with its impact. Endlessly circling back to the University Street site of the murder, relentlessly re-interviewing those potentially involved, chasing down every potential connection no matter how distant and peripheral, Cooper has written a modern day In Cold Blood. She makes the point that there are no true stories, only true facts, and the narratives that we construct from those facts are often more a reflection of who we are than of reality.
Cooper adds another layer to the classic ‘who done it’ with a deep dive into the plight of women in academia and specifically at Harvard. Interviewing many women who suffered sexual harassment at the hands of their professors and advisors and those who were denied tenure by a male chauvinist department and University enabled Cooper to develop this important theme in parallel with the story of Britten’s murder, both forms of violence towards women from the 1960’s to the present.
Part of both my obsession and that of Becky Cooper must be related to our identification with the victim and the setting. Jane Britten was in my class when Harvard and Radcliffe were separate colleges but shared classes and faculty. I didn’t know her but I did know one of her boyfriends who appears in the book as an early suspect before he proved that he was in Peru the night of the murder. The mention of Cronin’s, Elsie’s, Charlie’s Eating and Drinking Saloon, the Wursthaus, and Chez Henri, all part of my world during college and the knowledge that I might have sat next to Jane Britten in Hum 2 or Gov ‘something or other’ left me with a chill.
I plan to dig a bit further into Jane’s Radcliffe days in conversations with old friends, but I think that this book will stay with me for a long time. Read it at your peril.