We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper
This is not the type of book that I would normally pick up from Amazon or the local book store. For the past couple of years I’ve been reading mainly from the non-fiction genre but focusing on books that have a historical lens or those that I could “learn from”, i.e., highlight while reading which would then lead to note taking. We Keep the Dead Close has plenty of historical narrative and there were certainly some interesting tidbits that would have made for a bit of said note taking, but the story itself was so engrossing, compelling, and fascinating that it really didn’t lend itself toward that approach, and I probably enjoyed the book even more than I normally would have because I wasn’t obsessed with highlighting the key points. Cooper is a former New Yorker writer who, while a graduate student at Harvard in the 2000’s, became obsessed with the murder of Jane Britton, also a former graduate student in the Archeology department at Harvard in the late 1960’s — a different time and era, indeed, but perhaps not in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where time sometimes seems to get stuck, and not in a good way. The book is really investigative reporting/journalism, and Cooper becomes almost completely enmeshed and obsessed with this only-at-Harvard tale of power, sex, sexism, elitism, feminism, ego, and the school’s male dominated hierarchy — most especially in the professorial realm — that she basically loses herself in the story and seems to almost vanish from reality for a number of years while researching and writing about it. Cooper’s strength as a writer — and she is a remarkable one — is her ability to self-correct her thoughts, even in mid-sentence or paragraph, and also constantly and consistently question the evidence in front of her while then being careful to not come to conclusions that she can’t prove. Even at the end of the book, with the decades long case seemingly “solved” by the authorities in Boston and Cambridge, Cooper leaves the reader with a feeling of a bit of unfinished business while also taking care to note that some stories don’t have a neat and tidy ending, and sometimes there is no explanation for why horrible, unexplainable things happen at all. Clearly, this will not be the last we hear from Cooper, and I’m excited to see where the next story or adventure takes her because We Keep the Dead Close has set a narrative standard that perhaps only she can match in the future.