A former New Yorker staffer delves into the unsolved 1969 murder of Harvard University graduate student Jane Britton, who at the time was the daughter of Radcliffe's vice president. Cooper first heard of Jane's story when she was a Harvard undergraduate, where swirling rumors set her on a decade-long investigation into the murder and Harvard's culture of sexism and elitism.
... an over 400-page true crime book that's overstuffed with suspects, motives, red herrings and interviews — as well as Cooper's first-person meditations about her own fascination with the case ... Reading We Keep the Dead Close is akin to what I imagine it would be like to dive into a trench at an archaeological site and start digging, not with a trowel, but with a snow shovel. Cooper unearths tons of information here, but not every artifact deserves preserving. Indeed, by the time the case is closed in 2018 thanks to new developments in DNA testing, there's a feeling of exhaustion rather than satisfaction ... Had Cooper sifted more judiciously through this detail, We Keep the Dead Close would have been a more memorable true crime narrative. But, even in its unfiltered state, the book offers a vivid profile of one of the most prominent villains of this piece — one that to a degree still remains at large. That would be the sexist culture of academia, particularly at its most elite levels ... Cooper is an obsessive and identifies fiercely with her subject. Even when this book threatens to buckle under the weight of detail, Cooper's resolve to excavate the truth about Britton's murder will keep a reader engaged enough to want to follow this case to its unexpected conclusion.
... fits the genre of true crime only partially, bearing little resemblance, for example, to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which the author, a master manipulator of plot, character and scene, conceals himself, the better to immerse the reader in time and place. Ms. Cooper’s, by contrast, is a quest narrative, with an angsty young protagonist and fractured storytelling along the lines of the podcast Serial. When Ms. Cooper describes her war room, covered with 'theories and photos, a map of Iran, a blueprint of an apartment building, all stuck to my cork boards with dissection needles,' she sounds like Carrie Mathison of Homeland, flirting with the porous boundary between commitment and mania ... Britton has now been dead more than twice as long as she lived. Felled when her adult life had barely begun, she is hard to see as more than the sum of others’ unfilled needs and hazy memories, especially when her chronicler seems so often to turn shards of evidence into mirrors. But when she emerges, in flickers, her character is as tantalizing and as fleeting as her smile.
... 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 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 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 ... 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 ... 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 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 memorialized 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 ... 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 artifacts of the past speak for themselves.