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BOOK REVIEW

With a new book, Becky Cooper investigates the old murder of a Harvard student

Author Becky Cooper in front of the clay pit she excavated in Bulgaria as part of her investigation.
Author Becky Cooper in front of the clay pit she excavated in Bulgaria as part of her investigation.Becky Cooper

On the morning of Jan. 7, 1969, Jane Sanders Britton, a Harvard graduate student in anthropology (she specialized in archaeology), failed to show up for her general exams. Later that day she was found dead in her apartment on University Road, killed by the blow of a sharp, heavy object. Her body was marked — and this was the oddest detail of all — by red ochre powder, used in ancient burial rituals around the world.

The crime shocked Cambridge and spread through the newswires far beyond Boston. But Jane’s murder wasn’t just a crime story. It became, as Becky Cooper notes in this powerful, searching book about the case, a myth and a fable, particularly to Harvard students and those in the wider world of archaeology. Cooper herself heard the story when she was an undergraduate, told to her twice by different storytellers — and the second time, it was suggested that the killer was still very much around. Cooper was hooked.

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We Keep the Dead Close” chronicles an amateur sleuth’s investigation into a long-unsolved murder case, but this book is more ambitious than the run-of-the-mill true crime narrative seen so frequently these days. For one thing, Cooper is a stylish and fearless writer, relentlessly self-interrogating. She’s smart enough to examine her own motives in searching for the truth about Jane’s life. In that fraught post-college time, she writes, “Jane had become something to keep me company. A way to structure my life. Something to give it meaning.”

Writing about a murder when you are roughly the same age as the victim naturally produces a kind of doubling, a strong identification that can become excessive. Cooper’s desire to understand Jane leads her to root against her own happiness — when a budding romance withers, she feels relieved because she worries “if I was happily in love, I would forget the visceral experience of longing for it, and I would lose access to Jane.”

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Cooper’s investigation follows several promising suspects — the European professor with a reputation for philandering; the loner with a job at the museum; the angry outsider whose path crossed not only Jane’s but also that of another aspiring young female archaeologist, who went missing amid the frozen landscape in Labrador. There are any number of ways a young woman in academia can find herself in danger, Cooper finds.

To better understand Jane, Cooper goes on an archaeological dig in Bulgaria. “The juxtaposition of danger and delicacy was tantalizing,” Cooper writes of the work itself, but she could have been commenting on the overarching project she’s undertaken, one in which promising leads go astray, survivors’ memories go awry, and the central mystery remains untouched. Who killed Jane, and why?

Years into a seemingly endless quest, Cooper writes, “everything felt like quicksand.” The murder itself remains stubbornly unsolved (maybe unsolvable) and Jane herself seems to flit in and out of view, despite Cooper’s best efforts to pin her down. A mercurial figure, Jane seemed to have blended ambition and strength with insecurity and a tendency toward thrill-seeking. The book is at its most solid when Jane’s old friends talk about her — they are enduringly loyal — and their feelings seem to rub off on the author. “I attributed the depth of my feelings to the natural process for a biographer,” Cooper writes. “Breathing life into someone on the page was an act of both resurrection and transubstantiation.” Still, she adds, “every time I start to think I’ve pinned down my heroine, she wriggles past the outlines I’ve drawn for her.”

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As it unfolds, the book begins to investigate the nature of story itself — what we ask from our stories, what we need from them. The field of archaeology lends itself to a similar treatment. (For what is it but an attempt to understand the stories of the past?) In both cases, truth itself proves elusive. When so many of Jane’s former colleagues tell Cooper they can’t recall details from so long ago, the writer bridles. “I reflected on the irony of all these archaeologists telling me that something was too far in the past,” she writes. “That claimed that there was no point in unearthing a truth from so long ago, but of course this claim stood in direct opposition to the central premise of their work.”

In the end, Jane’s mystery is at least partially solved (though questions will likely always remain). But Cooper remains unsatisfied — “I wanted there to be more of a story so that it wasn’t so awful” — as if narrative itself can remove the immovable grief of a life taken too soon and senselessly. The end of the case brings a kind of emptiness. Cooper reminds herself of Jane’s favorite quote, by that great theologian Kurt Vonnegut, which she has pinned to her own wall: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” The fable has come to its conclusion at last; one hopes that Cooper, with her searching curiosity and probing questions, will soon find another to examine.

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WE KEEP THE DEAD CLOSE: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence

Becky Cooper

Grand Central, 512 pages, $28


Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.