A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
In my continuing efforts to read a book in every section of the store, I realized that the book I called true crime had a week argument at best. When I came across We Keep the Dead Close as an advance copy, I figured it about time to combine my love of Ivy League settings with the desire to read more in this genre, particularly as we’d be doing to for Nonfiction Book Club.
From the publisher marketing:
You have to remember, he reminded me, that Harvard is older than the U.S. government. You have to remember because Harvard doesn’t let you forget.
1969: the height of counterculture and the year universities would seek to curb the unruly spectacle of student protest; the winter that Harvard University would begin the tumultuous process of merging with Radcliffe, its all-female sister school; and the year that Jane Britton, an ambitious twenty-three-year-old graduate student in Harvard’s Anthropology Department and daughter of Radcliffe Vice President J. Boyd Britton, would be found bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment. Forty years later, Becky Cooper a curious undergrad, will hear the first whispers of the story. In the first telling the body was nameless. The story was this: a Harvard student had had an affair with her professor, and the professor had murdered her in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology because she’d threatened to talk about the affair. Though the rumor proves false, the story that unfolds, one that Cooper will follow for ten years, is even more complex: a tale of gender inequality in academia, a ‘cowboy culture’ among empowered male elites, the silencing effect of institutions, and our compulsion to rewrite the stories of female victims. We Keep the Dead Close is a memoir of mirrors, misogyny, and murder. It is at once a rumination on the violence and oppression that rules our revered institutions, a ghost story reflecting one young woman’s past onto another’s present, and a love story for a girl who was lost to history.
As I mentioned, my reading of true crime is virtually nonexistent, nor do I listen to true crime podcasts (or any podcasts really), or binge watch serial killer documentaries. As a bookseller and buyer, I didn’t think there were many “new” reading experiences left to me, and I’m so very excited to read and try something new!
In terms of style, We Keep the Dead Close reminded me most of The Lady from the Black Lagoon – like Mallory, Becky, incorporated herself into the story and the result is a true crime/memoir hybrid. In the two books that I’ve read that are structured this way, I enjoyed the author’s immersion in the life of their subject, but also how their lives were tied to their subjects.
I’ve realized the similarities between the two books actually extends well beyond their shared structure – Millicent Patrick (Mallory’s subject) and Jane (Becky’s subject) both worked in male dominated fields in the mid-twentieth century and both had to deal with issues of sexism, topics both Mallory and Becky cover in great detail. The more I think about it, the more I would love to curate an “If you like this, try this” shelf at the store with these two as anchor books.
Until I realized I could compare these two, I struggled mightly with how to write this review. I echo Rennie’s (What’s Nonfiction) warning from her own review, DO NOT GOOGLE if you are interested in reading the book, or while reading the book. I know, the urge is massively overwhelming, but I promise, it’s worth the suspense.
Throughout Becky’s writing, three main suspects appear in Becky’s research, the first, and the one Becky pays the most attention to, is the professor at the heart of the story passed down from Harvard class to Harvard class. She even goes so far as to sit on one of his classes when she returns to the campus to immerse herself back into the culture of the college of her own undergraduate days.
Harvard, itself, is the fourth suspect. The incredibly closed mouthed, tight lipped, misogynistic culture around the closed circle of professors of archeology. The culture of the department and university as a whole, played a crucial role in how the case was investigated as well as how the three potential suspects were pursued.
Becky jumps back and forth not only in the timeline of the crime, but also her own writing of the story, most likely because the case was resolved while she was writing the book, so she incorporates her own anticipation of a result throughout the writing. Like other true crime writers and journalists before her, their push for information (in this case police records), can lead to a renew interest and investigation into the case. Her own request for records, and the police department’s reluctance to hand them over, led renewed engagement on the forensic side of the case.
Overall, I read We Keep the Dead Close over the course of a weekend and was completely enthralled by the entire story. It had me turning pages faster than most other books I read this year and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon. Click the image below to add the book to your Goodreads TBR!