When Becky Cooper first heard the story as a student at Harvard, it seemed both unbelievable but still entirely feasible: in early January 1969, a Harvard professor killed a female archeology grad student after she threatened to expose their affair. After she failed to show for her general exams, she was discovered in her apartment with red ochre and necklaces arranged ritualistically over her bloodied, naked body. Harvard smothered the investigation, the murder remained unsolved, and the professor was still teaching in the same department, fully tenured. It was a story passed down through decades of students, a whisper network that warned women of the literal dangers lurking on the bucolic Harvard campus and the insidious landmines that could prove fatal to a woman with a burgeoning academic career. But to Cooper, Jane Britton’s death and life became an obsession. We Keep the Dead Close, Cooper’s chronicle of her decade-long quest to uncover the truth behind Jane’s murder, is a work of relentless investigative reporting in its own right, but also probes deeper questions of how our understanding of the past is crafted by those telling the story, what the stories that are silenced tell us and ultimately what we owe the dead.
Cooper, a former New Yorker staffer and herself a Harvard alumna, seems on first glance a strange choice to tell the story. Cooper had arrived at Harvard as a scholarship student from Queens, pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and surreal Harvard was. Jane came from a well-to-do, if emotionally cold, Massachusetts family, and was a graduate of Radcliffe, Harvard’s sister school and, at the time, the more highly selective institution. As the daughter of one of Radcliffe’s vice-presidents, solving the case was a high priority for the Cambridge police. But as Cooper tries to uncover more of Jane’s story, the case becomes more labyrinthine and bizarre. Like an archeological dig of the sort that Jane would have done, the gaps in the story are filled with interpretations that say more about the storyteller than the truth. What was the connection with Professor Lamberg-Karlovsky, who supervised Jane’s final dig and whose credentials seemed based more on ego than solid academic scholarship? Why was Jane failed on her first attempt at her exams when her work was largely applauded by most professors? Why didn’t Jane’s neighbors, close friends of hers, hear her cry out when she was attacked? Is there a connection between Jane’s death and a fifty-year old unsolved disappearance of another archeology student in remote Newfoundland? And why did the Cambridge police suddenly turn the case over to the Massachusetts State Police with little explanation? Cooper exhaustively pursues ever lead, narrowing the suspects to three, crisscrossing the country, filing innumerable Freedom of Information requests, and even undertaking her own archeological dig to get a sense of Jane, and understand the world that she was in when she was killed. We Keep the Dead Close reads at times likes a densely packed mystery, complete with red herrings, characters alternatively vilified and redeemed, with a victim who seemingly flits out of reach just as readers feel they have pinned down her down, and Cooper, with her single-minded determination, getting at times far too close to her subject. And looming over all of it, the might and mystique of Harvard, an institution that Cooper rightly notes sometimes exists by its own laws, particularly when it comes to protecting the men on faculty (and at Jane’s death, it was overwhelmingly men) that determined the fates of its students.
The mystery of Jane’s death is eventually solved, and it’s a stunning turn. But the resolution of one crime exposes more questions of larger wrongs within Harvard, academia and society at large. As for Jane Britton, we can only imagine what this smart, complicated woman might have accomplished. We Keep the Dead Close is highly recommended for fans of literary true crime, women’s and academic history, or fans of thorough investigative reporting.