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Saturday, February 20, 2021

Book Review: We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper (audiobook)

When Becky was a student at Harvard, she heard a story about a student from 1969 who was murdered by a professor she'd been having an affair with--and he was never caught and was still teaching. That chilled her to the bone. She had to look it up and she found Jane Britton, a graduate archaeology student. She was murdered. It was still unsolved.

This began several years of obsession on Becky's behalf with this case. She tracked down everyone possible, filed freedom of information act requests, and even went on a dig herself. She looked at several possible suspects, including the professor originally implicated by campus gossip. She looking into the sexism in the department and on campus, she looked into alleged police misconduct, and she investigated every possible lead. 

She insinuated herself into the story. I don't use the word obsession lightly here. She let it affect her relationships, her job, and her living situations. She took things personally. At times she was nervous or even scared around people. She let her feelings get enmeshed in the case and the outcome. I understand that's often the impetus that leads strangers to take on cold cases like Michelle McNamara does in I'll Be Gone in the Dark, but this felt different, like she didn't even try for any objectivity, and I did find myself rolling my eyes at points. Do I care if Becky's feet skimmed over the floor at the airport? What does that even mean? 

However, the saving grace is that she's a great writer. And also, unlike a lot of disappointing true crime I've read/listened to/watched lately, this one does have an ending. But I'm starting to wonder about this whole genre for me. The endings are a problem. Is the whole point truly the path there? I thought the point was whodunit. Without definitive answers, unless these are classified more as "Unsolved Mysteries," I'm getting frustrated. Because even though this case purports to have an ending, there are still some questions at the end (which Ms. Cooper not only acknowledges but helpfully enumerates.) 

Also, boy, Harvard just feels like an asshole. The whole institution. I detest Lawrence Summers and I think he was the perfect Harvard president in how he embodied the corporation. (At one point Ms. Cooper compares Harvard to a corporation but it is in fact one, and I think it should be called out as such.) The cover-ups and the just rampant, blatant sexism that still goes on today is unforgivable. 

Still, if you're into true crime and the involvement of the author/investigator doesn't both you, this is a great read. It's compelling and hard to put down. The author read the audiobook herself and I thought she did a fine job. 

I borrowed this digital audiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

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