27 November 2023

We Keep the Dead Close

Although I share many of our colleague Brian Thorton's (Doolin Dalton) reservations about true crime writing, I am going to make an exception for Becky Cooper's We Keep the Dead Close, subtitled, A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, a very long, sober, and ambitious book. Part memoir, part true crime, the book takes on sex discrimination at Harvard, examines gossip as power, and speculates on the sometimes deceptive power of narrative. Cooper wasn't a Radcliffe student for nothing.

She first heard Jane Britton's story in 2009, forty years after the graduate student in the Harvard Anthropology Department had been found bludgeoned to death in her Cambridge apartment. Athletic and artistic, Britton was a complex character, a forceful, confident personality, susceptible to depression but independent and memorable. Her killer was never identified, but decades on students still relayed the chosen campus story: she had an affair with one of her professors who murdered her and scattered red ochre, famous from prehistoric burials, over her corpse. Kicker: the professor, charismatic and tenured, was still employed at Harvard!

Well, there was a hook for any crime writer, but what seems to have caught Cooper's attention was the implied power of Harvard. She was not to the institution born and while delighted with much of Radcliffe, she often felt like an outsider in a seductive and powerful institution. Powerful enough to conceal a murder? Cooper began to think so, and the gallery of eccentrics in the insular Department of Anthropology, which included archeology, Jane Britton's field, gave plenty of room for speculation.

Nor was she the only one. By the end of We Keep the Dead Close, we have been introduced to a range of amateur detectives, some nursing their own painful losses, who offer a variety of suspects, including the original professor highlighted by student gossip. He was a riveting teacher, if a bit of a poseur, inspiring, temperamental, hot-tempered, and a believer in the power and utility of narrative. Explanation, not raw facts, was the key to archeology in his mind. 

Another candidate, in what was a homophobic environment, was an alcoholic and closeted gay man who had made late night visits to knock (unsuccessfully) on Jane's door. And then there was the archeologist whose female colleague had gone missing on a trip to Labrador. Ironically for a department that feared weakening its status by hiring women, Anthropology seems to have had more than its share of dodgy characters.

It is curious to an outsider that the assumption always was that Britton's killer was a Harvard man and, in particular, someone in Britton's department. Closed corporations often prefer the outsider hypothesis, and perhaps the Harvard powers that be leaned that way. But the undergrads and the graduate students were firm in their focus on one of the University's own. This leads Cooper to interesting asides about gossip and the way that salacious speculation helps even out power imbalances and serves up cautionary tales.

In any case, the university and even Britton's well-connected family seem to have wanted the whole thing to go away. What seems like carelessness and incompetence by the Cambridge police – they failed to secure the crime scene for days while trying to bully a confession out of her neighbors – sealed the failure. Jane Britton's murder was a cold case for forty years before Cooper and a number of other interested parties started pushing FOI requests.

We Keep the Dead Close is a record of Cooper's pursuit of every possible lead, interview and document for ten years. There is a fine line between persistence and obsession, but to do Cooper justice, she frequently reminds herself that she is not the central figure. By the end of the book, she has spoken, often productively, with Britton friends, relatives, suspects, professors, administrators, and cops. Still she hasn't solved the case.

What finally brings resolution turns out to be something as simple as stored samples and improved DNA testing. The results lead Cooper to a more modest ambition for her book but to interesting reflections about narratives, whether about the long-distant past or a cold case murder.

"I know even less about whether telling a responsible story of the past is possible," she writes, "having learned all too well how the act of interpretation molds the facts in the service of the story teller...There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts."

A comment pertinent at this troubling political moment for the general public as well as for writers.


The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator's Double 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations are available from Apple Books


  1. Good post, Janice!
    Closed cultures (whether small towns or big colleges) allow a lot of secrets, theories, and deep whispering to go on. You stick around long enough, listen carefully enough, you find a lot of snakes under those rocks. But none of them might be the actual solution to what happened. For one thing, closed cultures often prefer to stick to the "I KNOW he/she did it" even after the real solution is provided. Sigh...

  2. Eve's comment jarred my memory of murders that had questionable solutions, a 'suicide', a 'murder suicide', and a recent potential murder by proxy. Now you have me curious.

    By the way, The Rule of Four by Thomason and Caldwell is an excellent novel of Ivy League murder.

  3. Eve, you are right about the psychology especially in this case! I must look up The Rule of Four, Leigh.

  4. Janice, one of the saddest things about closed societies (especially small towns) is that, once they've decided someone is guilty, they stay guilty... in a way, they're imprisoned forever, and the only way to escape it is to move. And for some reason, a lot of them don't.


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