By the time Cooper heard that story, the case was 40 years cold. It had become an apocryphal tale of sex, violence and the culture of impunity at elite institutions. In reality, hardly any of those details were true. The case was real: On Jan. 7, 1969, three graduate students discovered the body of a fellow student, 23-year-old Jane Britton, bludgeoned to death in her apartment. It made newspapers across the country — “College Girl Axed to Death In Blood-Covered Apartment,” one headline read. But despite public interest and a lengthy investigation, police couldn’t find the killer.
One key detail of the original story was true: Red ocher was found on Britton’s body. It was the kind of insider’s clue that strongly suggested to the students and faculty of the archaeology department that the killer was one of their own. That fact, and the inability of the police to solve the crime, kicked off decades of speculation and a litany of suspects — none of whom escape Cooper’s investigative eye in her exhaustive and extraordinary new book, “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence.”
The most noteworthy element of Cooper’s book might be its reportorial ambition. Over 400 pages, she doggedly tracks down primary sources and digs for decades-old documents. It is a testament to her skills as a writer that she is able to connect the threads of the cold case to larger cultural issues, including the perceptual biases of archaeology, sexism in premier academic institutions and the narratives we project onto murdered women. Cooper has made a welcome entry into the annals of true crime — a genre glutted with amateur investigators, most of them not very good, inserting themselves into unsolved mysteries.
Cooper’s tale features some of that as well, sometimes to great effect. It’s hard not to feel a shiver of apprehension for her as she walks, alone, down a long country road to knock on the door of a man who’s been avoiding her interview requests for years. At other times, though, Cooper’s attempts to draw parallels between her own life and Jane’s can feel overwrought, straining the limits of the story. “We had come a long way from the pre-Feminine Mystique days, but the model I’d inherited of being a strong, independent woman left no space for needing to be loved,” she writes at one point. “And as I tried to own this power, I discovered, as perhaps Jane did, that this trailblazing did nothing to supplant the need for companionship. . . . In Jane’s duality, I felt like my version of femininity finally had room to breathe.”
In another passage, she recounts slow-dancing with her boyfriend, imagining a similar scene playing out between Britton and her then-boyfriend, Jim Humphries: “I thought that despite the decades that separated us, I had found a companion in my loneliness in her. I couldn’t help but imagine time collapse. I saw her doing the exact same choreography, fending off her shadows in the arms of Jim Humphries.”
Such memoiristic passages serve a narrative purpose in true crime, insofar as they help cover the holes in the narrative itself. Writers impose themselves on the story to fill in gaps that otherwise would remain unfilled. They situate the writer at home in a story in which she is usually a voyeur. But Cooper doesn’t need to do that. Her reporting and investigating are more than enough to carry the book on its own.
There are moments, too, when her recounting of her reporting weighs the book down. Re-creating a bit of small talk among students before an archaeology class, or attaching significance to a subject’s benign stumble over a few words, may contribute to a sense of the unwinding of the plot, but it does little to contribute to our understanding of the long-ago murder or the climate in which it was perpetrated.
It is hard not to think, reading a section detailing the sexism that other women at Harvard faced, about the women who attended less-prestigious institutions or who never got to attend college at all. Or about why some unsolved murders get lengthy investigations and others hardly receive any attention. But Cooper chose to write about this woman, Jane Britton, and she does so with remarkable sensitivity and grace. Britton comes off like a real person: witty, morbid, fierce, frenetic, intriguing, complicated and ultimately unknowable in the way that all strangers are.
In 2018, the district attorney for Middlesex County announced that investigators had solved Britton’s murder using DNA samples taken from the crime scene — spurred on, in part, by Cooper’s relentless push for more information about the case. The abrupt resolution upends the investigation on which she had spent nearly a decade. As she struggles to make sense of new information, her writing becomes more fragmented and impressionistic. It is an unusual but fascinating inversion of the genre — the moment a crime is solved is when, traditionally, the story comes together — but Cooper uses it as an opportunity to turn to even bigger questions. “People are more than symbols. Not everything has thematic heft,” she writes. “The tools of storytelling can blind us from the truth. How then do you tell a responsible story about the past after all?”
It’s an essential question, one every true-crime writer should be asking. The first version of the story Cooper heard was little more than a rumor. But in the book, she carefully investigates every lead, reports every fact and contextualizes for the reader the culture that gave rise to the original story. If it is possible to write responsibly about the past, then surely she’s done it.
We Keep the Dead Close
A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century
Grand Central Publishing
512 pp. $29