Long unsolved, a Harvard murder case gets a fresh look in ‘We Keep the Dead Close’

Rebekah Frumkin

THE WASHINGTON POST – In January 1969, Jane Britton, an archaeology graduate student at Harvard, was assaulted and murdered in her Cambridge apartment. The 23-year-old’s body was dusted with red ocher, a pigment used by many ancient cultures in burial ceremonies. The ocher, along with a small headstone placed next to Britton’s bed, suggested that the killer must have known something about the ancient world. The killer’s identity eluded detectives for decades.

Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close is an impressively granular investigation of this shocking and perplexing case. Admirably, Cooper tries to do two things – tell the story of Britton’s murder and seek justice for her. The latter includes detailed profiles of suspects, countless requests made under the Freedom of Information Act and copious interviews. But the investigation’s details are frequently overshadowed by Cooper’s troubled relationship to the case: She wants to extract a story from the past that both makes logical sense and points, as the clues do, to knowledge of ancient life. This leads her down various rabbit holes, guessing at narratives that may not fit with the truth of the case and questioning her own assumptions as she does so.

Cooper spends much of We Keep the Dead Close with three primary suspects. There’s Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky, a professor of archeology whose ego far outsizes his scholarly abilities. He is joined by Lee Parsons and Richard Gramly, fellow archeologists with tendencies toward moodiness. We travel to digs in Iran and Labrador, Canada, watch the burning of ceremonial candles, and listen to Lamberg-Karlovsky describe the joys and pitfalls of Alpine skiing. The blame shifts among the three as Cooper scrupulously digs up evidence for each, not unlike an archaeologist plumbing the earth for relics of the past.

Cooper should be lauded for her investigative abilities – there is no question that she has earned her spot among the ranks of detectives and reporters who have spent decades obsessed with the Britton case. Nevertheless, she is adamant that her book is not a work of true crime. She writes of amateur sleuths drawn to unsolved murders by their lurid details, “The culture of true-crime fandom felt like it flattened crime into entertainment, using other people’s fear and trauma to deal with a sense of bodily vulnerability.” As a genre, true crime trucks in the violation of White womanhood and the heroism of the police, two concepts that ring especially hollow given the considerable (and frequently uninvestigated) violence perpetrated against women of colour, much of it by police themselves.

True crime has so warped our understanding of the human capacity for evil that Truman Capote spent much of In Cold Blood trying to empathise with the killer Perry Smith, and leagues of women attended Ted Bundy’s trial, in love with a man guilty of countless rapes and murders. While We Keep the Dead Close is hardly smitten with its villains, it does spend much of its 400-plus pages trying to get inside their heads, occasionally causing the narrative to stray from rigorous investigation into the realm of eye-popping speculation.

It’s in discussing the misogyny of academia and the politics of Harvard that Cooper shines the brightest. A former Harvard student herself, Cooper is well familiar with the institution’s age-old defence of its male faculty. In the year Britton was murdered, Harvard had no female full or associate professors and only nine female assistant professors. Casual sexism ran rampant among the Harvard archaeologists: female instructors were denied offices, one even forced to work out of the basement. Much is made of Radcliffe College, Britton’s alma mater, serving as a sort of second-class citizen to all-male Harvard, a dynamic upset by a merger of the two institutions that rocked Harvard’s otherwise conservative campus.

In Cooper’s capable hands, Harvard, with all its prestige and palace intrigue, is as much a character in the book as her suspects and interviewees, guilty of sidelining Britton and protecting the men who tormented her. The university makes for a microcosmic representation of a broader world in which the voices of young women struggling for their civil rights were silenced or, worse yet, met with violence.

Ultimately, We Keep the Dead Close is the story of Jane Britton, whose voice Cooper preserves by quoting extensively from reams of her notebooks and letters. We learn who Britton was in life – whip-smart, foul-mouthed, driven, and occasionally melancholic – and we spend a good deal of time with her lovers and friends, including the unfortunate couple who lived next door to her and discovered her body the morning after her murder. But the story of Britton is also a story of extreme privilege: Her family was from a well-to-do Boston suburb, and her father held a high-ranking position at Radcliffe. Of course, this doesn’t mean Britton’s story shouldn’t be told; rather, it begs consideration of why it’s being told, why Britton was memorialised in a way that many women of a different race and class would not have been. Had Cooper approached this question with the same interrogative spirit with which she approached her own narrative assumptions, the book would have felt more complete.

We Keep the Dead Close doesn’t conclude with the revelation we were expecting. I won’t disclose the ending here, to preserve the suspense. That said, the book is more than just a mystery: It’s a meditation on academia, womanhood and the power of storytelling. Even though Cooper may not always thread the narrative needle exactly as she wants, she’s proved herself more than capable of letting the artefacts of the past speak for themselves.