“We Keep the Dead Close” by Becky Cooper
REVIEW BY MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“Harvard will change you by the end of your four years, but don’t expect to change it. It wouldn’t be surprising if an institution that prided itself on being older than the government might have behaved as though it were accountable only to itself.”
This novel is for true crime fans. Becky Cooper’s book is a deep dive into the 1969 murder of Harvard graduate student Jane Britton. The year in American history was tumultuous enough, and the front-page story of a beautiful coed bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment eventually morphed into a sort of urban legend. Only the case is still unsolved, and the rumored murderer is still a tenured professor at Harvard forty years later. When Becky Cooper attends Harvard in the early 2000s, she casually hears about the unsolved case, is mysteriously drawn to the victim, and begins an amateur investigation. The shirked responsibility of Harvard and the seeming intent on behalf of the university to cover for one of their professors at the expense of one of their students is compelling.
Jane Britton was what you would call an extroverted recluse. When she was engaged, she was all in socially, but when she disappeared, people left her alone. As an archeology student, Jane went on summer digs, which she documented in a journal. She corresponded with family and friends via letters, exposing the whims of her emotions, either soaring or in the depths of despair. Her close friends were primarily neighbors and fellow archeology students, two of whom found her body the morning she failed to show up for general exams. One friend remembers, “Jane was not universally beloved; I’ll just put it that way. I think an awful lot of people were scared of Jane – that more so than disliking her. It was hard to dislike anybody that fascinating, but it’s easy to be scared of her.”
Becky begins by questioning those associated with the investigation decades before. She walks the Harvard halls frequented by Jane, attends the same professor’s classes, follows message boards, and reaches out to local police officers who worked the case. The deeper she goes, the more she begins to understand Jane, identifying parallels between herself and the dead stranger. The investigation consumes Becky’s life for a decade and becomes her only focus.
The short chapters switch from various perspectives, some from Becky’s investigation, some from Jane’s life, and others from witness accounts before and after the incident. While there is a lot of he said/she said, Becky’s narrative pacing and explanations throughout provide clarity and meaningful analysis. The tension from Becky’s confrontations with suspects balances the 1969 day-to-day accounts from multiple perspectives. The novel is quite large, and Cooper seems to have included every tidbit from the investigation, even clarifying when she’s summarizing clues that went nowhere. Some of the details feel repetitive, but I think she tried to mimic her investigation for readers to try and decipher the mystery for themselves. The novel does conclude with a closed case, along with Cooper’s thoughts and concerns with the results. This is Cooper’s first novel and was cited on many best books of 2020 lists.
“Some people are naturally predators and others are natural victims and we fall somewhere in between, not having the guts to be the first nor the humility of the second.”