One difficult truth of our era’s fascination with all things true crime is how the personhood of a “victim” can get lost amid endless details of sleuthing, records and police procedural. Becky Cooper’s gripping literary nonfiction debut, "We Keep the Dead Close" (Grand Central, 512 pp., ★★★½ out of four), admirably avoids this mistake and never lets us forget the lived experience of Jane Britton, a promising anthropology grad student at Harvard, whose terrifying and unexplained 1969 murder at age 23 went unsolved for decades.
Cooper, a former New Yorker editorial staff member, first heard of the rumor about a student murdered by a professor with whom she had a relationship only shortly after she herself graduated from Harvard. Compelled to learn more, Cooper investigated Britton’s life and story for 10 years before producing "We Keep the Dead Close," a compelling portrait of a woman’s life cut short – as well as a fascinating exposé of a prestigious enclave within the country’s most elite institution.
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Born to a prominent Cambridge family – her father was vice president of Radcliffe College – Britton was an exceptional student chosen to join a summer expedition in Iran in 1969. The grueling project, a dig site called Tepe Yahya, was led by professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky, a controversial star in the department whose treatment of Britton raised questions.
Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, also on the trip, was one of the last people to see her alive: Britton was found dead in her apartment shortly after their return to Cambridge, bludgeoned and sexually assaulted. The crime scene contained a shocking and perplexing clue: red ochre (a traditional burial material) sprinkled around Britton’s body and bed.
Despite several years of investigation, a multitude of suspects and the powerful resources of Britton’s parents, no arrest was made. One of Cooper’s first moves is to audit Karlovsky’s course: “Archaeology is an investigation, he explained, but it can also be an act of power – of finding the data and then controlling the story.” Attuned to these forces, Cooper unearths significant data on what happened to Britton as well as provocative questions about who controls the narrative of a woman who is killed. Her investigation – and this book – extends the story to encompass several other suspects who had motive and opportunity, the role of DNA research breakthroughs and a number of other women whose lives were ended by violence.
Composed in brief, fragment-like chapters, "We Keep the Dead Close" tracks Cooper’s own feelings about Jane Britton, as well the relationships with she built – with Britton’s family, friends and other investigators – over the years spent with the case. When breakthroughs arrive late in the process, Cooper movingly evokes the emotional impact on all those affected, herself included.
Less effective is the writer’s choice to compare her own romantic relationship to Jane Britton’s, which reads as appended instead of meaningful. Britton’s own words are more stirring, her stated desire for a person to “remember me the way I am instead of the way they see me.”
"We Keep the Dead Close" achieves that and more in an engrossing, monumental work.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We Keep The Dead Close' a stirring portrait of a life cut short