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How A 1969 Murder At Harvard Turned Into A Cold Case And A 'Cautionary Tale'

Grand Central Publishing

The murder scene looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. That's the one thing that the multitudinous cast of witnesses, suspects and police detectives might agree on in We Keep the Dead Close, Becky Cooper's just published account of a murder at Harvard that took place in 1969 and remained unsolved until two years ago.

Jane Britton, the victim, was a 23-year-old graduate student in the anthropology department. On the morning of Jan. 7, 1969, her boyfriend, who was also a grad student, became concerned when Britton failed to show up at a lecture hall in Harvard's Peabody Museum.

Fellow grad students that morning were sweating through exams. When Britton's boyfriend finished his own exam he walked over to her apartment in a dilapidated, poorly secured building owned by Harvard. There, he discovered Britton splayed out face-down on her mattress, which was covered in blood. Britton had been bludgeoned to death, perhaps with something small and sharp, like one of the archaeological tools she'd used on a dig in Iran that past summer.

Scattered around Britton's body was what looked to be red ochre, a powdery iron ore substance that's been found in ancient burial sites around the world. Adding to the ritualistic atmosphere of the murder scene was the fact that a piece of a colonial grave marker was also placed by Britton's body.

Cooper first heard about the murder in 2009, when she was an undergrad at Harvard. As she writes, "From the moment I heard the story ... so much about it barbed me." Cooper would go on to spend over a decade investigating the cold case. After graduation, she eventually joined the editorial staff of The New Yorker; but as her involvement with the case deepened, Cooper would leave that job, moving onto Harvard's campus as a resident advisor and even embark on an archaeological dig in Bulgaria — all in an effort to get closer to the crime and its victim.

The result is an over 400-page true crime book that's overstuffed with suspects, motives, red herrings and interviews — as well as Cooper's first-person meditations about her own fascination with the case.

Reading We Keep the Dead Closeis akin to what I imagine it would be like to dive into a trench at an archaeological site and start digging, not with a trowel, but with a snow shovel. Cooper unearths tons of information here, but not every artifact deserves preserving. Indeed, by the time the case is closed in 2018 thanks to new developments in DNA testing, there's a feeling of exhaustion rather than satisfaction.

Had Cooper sifted more judiciously through this detail, We Keep the Dead Closewould have been a more memorable true crime narrative. But, even in its unfiltered state, the book offers a vivid profile of one of the most prominent villains of this piece — one that to a degree still remains at large. That would be the sexist culture of academia, particularly at its most elite levels.

Cooper tells us that in 2009, when she first heard about Britton's murder, "the body was nameless." Just another girl, found dead. Even as she comes to learn so much about Britton's personality and family background, Cooper learns other things: for instance, that female grad students in Harvard's anthropology department until recently kept a secret file on Britton's murder that they handed down from one class to the next and that they viewed her murder as a "cautionary tale ... about the dangers that faced women in academia."

Cooper says Britton's story "was still so alive in the community because it was an exaggerated, horror-movie version of a narrative that was all too common." Consider this: One of the prime murder suspects for a time was Britton's advisor. Cooper interviewed that now elderly professor and he told her that after Britton's death, he received a call from the dean who offered him Harvard's full support without reservation. Cooper recalls the professor grinned as he added: "[The dean] didn't even ask me if I did it!"

True crime isn't a particularly female literary preserve, but I think there's often an added element of identification when a woman writes about another woman's unsolved death. A recent example would be Emma Copley Eisenberg's The Third Rainbow Girl, about the 1980 double murder of two young women in Appalachia. Like Eisenberg, Cooper is an obsessive and identifies fiercely with her subject. Even when this book threatens to buckle under the weight of detail, Cooper's resolve to excavate the truth about Britton's murder will keep a reader engaged enough to want to follow this case to its unexpected conclusion.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.