Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: True Crime (page 1 of 2)

Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

John Carreyrou is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story behind Theranos, the Silicon Valley biotech startup he revealed to be a multi-billion dollar fraud. The story of Theranos, and its charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes, has reached mythic proportions in popular culture. Bad Blood is the riveting true story told in full, straight from the source, so if you’ve only heard it in snippets and memes, this is the book for you.

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Bad Blood is a true crime book about corporate fraud – an particularly rich untapped vein in that genre, if you ask me. This story has got it all: the gold-rush mentality of Silicon Valley, a brilliant idea, secrets and lies, a house of cards, a cat-and-mouse game with reporters… it all unfolds like a high-octane thriller, but better, for being real.

Holmes started Theranos as a 19-year-old college drop-out. She had incredible vision and admirable goals – making health care accessible and affordable, effecting a shift in the power dynamic between doctors and patients. You know, information is power, and all of that. She imagined a device in people’s homes that would allow them to diagnose dozens – no hundreds – no thousands of diseases with a single finger prick, a far cry from long lines at the pathologist to have vials of blood drawn at a time.

The amounts of money that she was able to attract with this idea are astronomical. Most of the people involved aren’t household names (with the exception of Rupert Murdoch), but the brands that got on board – Walgreens, Safeway – sure are.

Unfortunately for them all, Holmes’s ambition was coupled with complete delusion about her capacity to achieve and deliver on what she promised. She had all the hallmarks of a cult leader: a charismatic recruiter with a peculiar talent for pitting people against each other while keeping them on her side.

For over a decade, as Carreyrou depicts in Bad Blood, Holmes systematically drove away dozens of people who could have actually helped her, tarring them as nay-sayers and small-minded critics. The extreme lengths that Holmes and her lawyers and devotees went to prevent their fraud being made public brings to mind Harvey Weinstein and the story that unfolded in She Said (Holmes and Weinstein even used the same lawyer).

Holmes channeled [the] fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery.

Bad blood (page 296)

Carreyrou himself doesn’t appear in the story until Chapter 19. He conducted hundreds of interviews investigating the story of Theranos and preparing it for the public – first for the Wall Street Journal, and then for Bad Blood. He managed to track down no fewer than sixty former Theranos employees, convincing them to set aside their fears of retaliation and legal ramifications. Holmes herself declined to participate (hard to imagine why…).

It all allowed him to paint a completely convincing picture of what life inside Holmes’s web was like, but it also led to him becoming personally invested in the story and a target of Holmes’s wrath. He does come off as slightly defensive towards the very end of Bad Blood (did we really need to know about the ‘fuck you, Carreyrou’ chant the Theranos employees did at a gathering?), but I suppose it’s understandable, given what they put him through.

Bill Gates said that “Bad Blood tackles some serious ethical questions, but it is ultimately a thriller with a tragic ending. It’s a fun read full of bizarre details that will make you gasp out loud,”. It also serves as a testament to the power and importance of unbiased investigative journalism. Bad Blood had my jaw dropping and my tongue wagging for days, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a true crime read without blood.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Blood:

  • “Bought the book for several of my employees.” – buy amazon buy
  • “Bought Bad Blood while I was watching The Dropout on Hulu. Here’s the thing: my copy of Bad Blood is a total dropout in that the pages drop out and the binding is unbound! I’m trying to get through but seriously…My copy is like the subject of L’il Wayne’s “How to Love.” For a second the pages of my copy are over here. Now they are over there.” – Karen
  • “This book is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing more than a recount of an entitled brat, her evil spouse, and hundreds of people getting screwed over in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure why I listened as long as I did. With the rave reviews, I was expecting something better, but the book just seems so repetitive. The overarching theme of the book is 1) Make crappy product that doesn’t work. 2) Scam person into thinking it does. 3) Rinse and repeat” – Austin

We Keep The Dead Close – Becky Cooper

In 1969, Harvard was merging with its sister school Radcliffe, and the administration was trying desperately to curb student activism and the growing influence of counterculture. That same year, 23-year-old graduate student Jane Britton was killed in her apartment. Decades later, student Becky Cooper heard a garbled version of the story that had passed into Harvard folklore. She spent ten years chasing the truth of the story, and We Keep The Dead Close is the result.

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First off, I love the format of We Keep The Dead Close. There are no schlocky high-gloss photographs; it’s laid out like a literary fiction novel. There are transcripts of interviews, extracts from journals and letters, facsimiles of newspaper coverage, and extensive notes. It smacks of a classy, well-researched piece of journalism.

Vignette-like chapters alternate between the initial discovery and investigation of Jane’s murder, and Cooper’s own discovery and investigation of the crime. The story Cooper heard was sensationalised, as all rumour-mill murder stories tend to be: apparently, an archaeology student was murdered in the library with an ancient stone tool, by the married professor with whom she had an affair. Her body was sprinkled with red ochre, an ancient burial rite, and adorned with jewellery for her journey into the afterlife, a macabre ritual that pointed to the killer – but he got away with it, because the Harvard administration covered it up. Of course, the truth of Jane Britton’s murder was less sensational, but no less fascinating.

(And, okay, fine, some of the facts of the case are stranger than fiction. The red ochre bit was real. And a man who might have been able to provide crucial evidence was struck dead by lightning. True story.)

The New York Times, reviewing We Keep The Dead Close, gave it the headline: “New Book Returns To An Irresistible Theme: The Harvard Murder”. Indeed, the institution of Harvard plays a major role in the narrative, and Britton’s murder is – in effect – the harsh reality of the ‘dark academia’ aesthetic. Cooper lifts the veil on the cryptic world of elite tertiary education, the pot-holed track to tenure for professors and the politics of progression for students. But it’s not as simple as “there was a murder on campus and Harvard covered it up”.

You’ve heard of “leaving no stone unturned”? Cooper turns the stones, the pebbles, and digs up the dirt underneath them for good measure. In We Keep The Dead Close, she follows every lead and goes down every rabbit hole. It’s particularly admirable work in a genre that so often demands cohesive narratives be made out of the messy strands of a life. Cooper has no compunction about presenting inconclusive evidence. But that does mean, at times, the reader could easily get bogged down in the details. Cooper’s passion for her subject – and her tireless investigation and presentation of it – is enough to light the way, if the reader is willing to persist.

It takes until Part Four (about half-way through the text) for the story – and Cooper’s driving force – to really come together. But when it does… hoo boy! You won’t be able to put it down. I worry for the readers who might abandon it before they get to that point (see above: rabbit holes, boggy details). It’s not ideal structurally, but We Keep The Dead Close is one of those rare books that you really can’t form an opinion on until you’ve read it all the way through. It’s the Schitt’s Creek of contemporary true crime.

I am particularly impressed with the emphasis that Cooper places on the impact of the crime on those left behind, Jane Britton’s friends and family and co-workers. Clearly, much care and consideration went into her decisions about how to best portray the decades-long effects of violent crime, without betraying her subjects. I really hope that We Keep The Dead Close is representative of a new direction for true crime as a genre, in that regard.

By Part Seven (near the end), We Keep The Dead Close is about so much more than the crime, the investigation, or the victim. It’s about our collective histories, the stories we fit around the facts of our lives and the lives of others, how and why we construct these narratives (and whom they serve).

Vox highlighted this aspect in their review, saying that: “We Keep The Dead Close joins Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark… within a growing true crime movement. This movement aims to underscore just how deeply the act of reporting on a true crime story – especially one in the past – can alter and warp the story in ways that serve to destroy the truth, whatever that may be.”

As one of the interviewees says, it’s a Poirot mystery with a post-modern ending.

All told, We Keep The Dead Close isn’t a straightforward read, but it’s a worthy one. If you’re looking for a fast-paced linear whodunnit with a foreseeable conclusion, you’ll need to pick up a fictional detective mystery instead. But if you’re interested in how a real cold case gets solved, in the role institutions play in our lives, in the way our stories shape who we are and what we know about the world – you absolutely must put We Keep The Dead Close on the top of your to-be-read pile.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Keep The Dead Close:

  • “I pity this poor author. She poured her life into investigating a crime. She cast shade on a dozen different men, almost to the point of libel. And then, oops! it turns out the killer was just some random criminal. An honorable writer would have admitted that things did not work out for her and moved on. But, Cooper apparently decided to just write the book anyway.” – William Theodore Clemmons
  • “This is a grad students thesis gone wrong.” – Lisa Ray
  • “I like fictional mysteries and suspense novels, but I think I’m not going to be one of those white women millennials obsessed with true crime.” – Rachel Reads Ravenously
  • “Others have said it better than me, but my two cents is that this book is mostly pointless unless viewed as a memoir of a (wasted) decade of a young woman’s life. Even as such, it’s pretty thin. It’s kind of incredible that she could say all those unflattering things about all those people and not get sued—it’s not like any of that gossip ever led anywhere. So awkward.” – Esskay
  • “I suspect that if the author had been a mature woman–someone of the victim’s generation, say–rather than a photogenic young woman with a Harvard degree and a stint at The New Yorker, We Keep The Dead Close would never have found its way out of the slush pile.” – Priscilla S. Rhoades

Say Nothing – Patrick Radden Keefe

I loved Empire Of Pain so much, I immediately ran out and picked up a copy of Patrick Radden Keefe’s previous best-seller, Say Nothing. It was published in 2018, and billed as a history of the Troubles told through a single cold case, “a true story of murder and memory in Northern Ireland”. I was sure it was going to be a five-star read.

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In 1972, Jean McConville, a 38-year-old widowed mother of ten(!), was abducted from her Belfast home and never seen alive again. No one has ever been officially brought to justice for her abduction and murder. Through this unsolved case, Keefe explores the sectarian violence that has divided Ireland, and specifically the culture of silence that underpins the social contract in all areas of Irish life as a result. The title, Say Nothing, is actually taken from a Seamus Heaney poem about the conflict called Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

Although Say Nothing is broad in scope, a conflict this complex couldn’t be completely captured in a book twice the length. As Keefe says himself in his author’s note on sources:

“This is not a history book but a work of narrative non-fiction…. Because I have elected to tell this particular story, there are important aspects of the Troubles that are not addressed. The book hardly mentions loyalist terrorism, to take just one example. If you’re feeling whataboutish, I would direct you to one of the many excellent books cited in the notes that address the Troubles more broadly or your favoured subject in particular.”

Patrick Radden Keefe on say nothing

So, bearing that in mind, here’s a refresher of the essentials. Nearly 4,000 people were killed in the Troubles between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. For the most part, these deaths were attributable to violence between Catholic republicans – who sought to unify Northern Island with the Republic – and the Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British military, who sought to squash their revolution. This period was punctuated by frequent shootings, riots, and bombings. Many of those killed and injured were civilians.

Surprisingly, fewer than twenty people were “disappeared” during this period (as far as Keefe/we know). Jean McConville was one of them. She was far from the “perfect” victim, as far as the true crime genre goes; by Keefe’s report, she had PTSD (as I’d imagine most people living in Belfast at the time did), she was dependent on prescription tranquilizers, and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment at one point. Her life circumstances were tragic, and her disappearance took things from bad to worse for her whole (huge!) family.

So, given the complex nature of the crime and victimology at the heart of Say Nothing, why would Keefe spend a decent chunk of the first half describing the life and (mis)adventures of political activist and Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer Dolours Price? It wasn’t immediately clear what she had to do with the disappearance of Jean McConville, and in my view Keefe took a little too long to connect the dots.

It’s also worth noting that another decent chunk of Say Nothing is focused on unravelling the myth of Gerry Adams: the good, the bad, and the bitter. He’s famous for negotiating the Good Friday Agreement that saw a rapid de-escalation in violence, but as Keefe shows, his hands are covered in blood.

Around the end of Part Two and the start of Book Three, though, it really started to come together – and from then, I could barely tear my eyes away.

It turns out that Dolours Price, and her sister (also an activist/volunteer), were almost certainly involved in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, on the orders of Gerry Adams – but proving it is a pipe dream. The only hope of testimony as to their involvement came in the form of the Belfast Project, an archive of oral histories of key players in the Troubles, recorded and stored in the high-security Treasure Room at Boston College in the U.S.

On the one hand, this sounds like a win (“heck yeah! break into the Treasure Room, get the transcripts, solve the cold case!”), but it’s actually a really sad and horrifying story of good intentions and good faith ruined by political zeal. The Belfast Project transcripts were supposed to be sealed, only to be opened after the death of the project participants, for the purposes of academic research. That courts would demand access to them to solve political crimes is, in retrospect, a foreseeable consequence of the project, but not one that the College or the coordinators properly planned for. I’ll leave it to Keefe to explain it in full (you’ll have to read Say Nothing to really “get it”), but suffice to say here, it’s a mess of grey areas and ethical quandaries.

In the final chapter, Keefe switches to a more personal tone, and offers his own insights without his journalistic hat on. He provides some context as to his own Irish heritage, how he heard about Dolours Price and Jean McConville, and why he chose to pursue the story. He draws conclusions as to what “really” happened to McConville – as the true crime genre dictates he must – but he makes clear to the reader what can be “proven” and what is purely his own educated guesswork.

I guess I came to Say Nothing expecting a bit more true crime, and a little less history – which is a fault of my own, not Keefe’s incredible work. It’s less of a family saga than Empire Of Pain, and more a documentary-style investigation into the consequences of violence and silence. So, even though it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it was still pretty damn good, and I learned a whole heck of a lot.

(Trigger warning for a dog death – it’s glanced over, early on, but it was enough to make me teary, reading while hormonal and drinking wine. Also beware sectarian violence, mass murder, and abuses of many kinds.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of Say Nothing:

  • “this book is as exciting as reading the Dublin phone book.” – amazon customer
  • “Unless you’re a historian, this book is overpriced and simply boring” – Alain Blanchette

The Stranger Beside Me – Ann Rule

There are a few serial killers so notorious that their names have become synonymous with their crimes. Ask any stranger on the street to name a serial killer, and chances are Ted Bundy will be the name they give you. I normally shy away from the twisted fandom that grows around killers like Bundy; so much has been written, recorded, and filmed about him, it’s hard to escape him let alone choose one version as the “definitive” Ted Bundy story… but The Stranger Beside Me is such an enduring book of true crime, up there with In Cold Blood, that I felt I simply had to read it.

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The Stranger Beside Me is unique in that it is both biographical and autobiographical, existing in the weird gray area between journalism and memoir. See, Rule wasn’t just any crime writer who picked up the Bundy story: she was his friend, before his crimes came to light. She met Bundy in 1971, when he was a psychology student at the University of Washington, and they volunteered together manning the phones of a suicide crisis line.

To write a book about an anonymous murder suspect is one thing. To write such a book about someone you have known and cared for for ten years is quite another… Ted Bundy’s story must be told, and it must be told inn its entirety if any good can evolve from the terrible years: 1974-1980.

The Stranger Beside Me (Preface)

When they first got to know each other, Bundy seemed to Rule a “kind, solicitous, and empathetic” person. The incongruity of a serial killer working to save the lives of desperate callers to a suicide hotline is really difficult to deal with, for Rule and the reader. “Ted Bundy took lives [but] he also saved lives,” she says on page 28. “I know he did, because I was there when he did it.”

Even though you “know” the Bundy story, as I do, I’m quite sure The Stranger Beside Me will still have a few unexpected twists and turns for you. For instance, about a hundred pages in (in 1974, the early days of Bundy’s killing career, in the book’s timeline), Rule shares something I did NOT see coming: she recognised the description of her friend Ted in a witness statement, and reported the similarities to police. I actually wrote in my notes as I was reading: “HOLY FUCK! SHE TIPPED OFF THE COPS! IN 1974!”. Unfortunately, Rule’s tip was one of thousands, and Bundy’s name was buried beneath the hundreds of other “more likely” suspects.

And, in addition to the jaw-drop moments, there are heart-pounding ones, too: like when Rule meets Bundy for lunch after he is released on bail for an early kidnapping charge. She tries to ask him, diplomatically, whether there was any truth to the charges and rumours. Can you imagine sitting across the table from a close colleague and trying to ask them whether they’d abducted and killed a few women? It makes my knees knock just to think about it.

No one could accuse Rule of not openly admitting her potential bias in her friendship with Bundy, and interrogating it for and with the reader in The Stranger Beside Me. Constant doubt gnaws at Rule throughout the book, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing her personal feelings about both Bundy and his crimes, even when those feelings are contradictory and confusing. Thankfully, she was never in love with Bundy (as so many of the women who surrounded him were), so there’s no mushiness or lust-induced blind-spots in her telling. She even acknowledges the dark stroke of “luck” that saw her, a mid-career crime writer, befriending a man who turned out to be one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century. It seems, to me, a very ethical way of writing true crime – one I’d like to see more writers in the genre adopt.

I felt a chill. Not even a television script could make it believable that a crime writer could sign a contract to write a book about a killer, and then have the suspect turn out to be her close friend. It wouldn’t wash.

The Stranger Beside Me (Page 148)

I doubt you’d have even clicked on this review if you’re sensitive to sexualised violence against women, but the trigger warnings bear mentioning anyway. The Stranger Beside Me contains fairly graphic detail about Bundy’s crimes, but the descriptions aren’t gratuitous. Rule isn’t trying to titillate you, or make a spectacle of the violence; she only discloses as much as she needs to to impress upon you the horror that Bundy wrought, to tell the Bundy story in its entirety, as she set out to do. The lives of Bundy’s victims are described in detail, where possible, and the women are spoken of with great respect – they’re not just tally marks next to Bundy’s name.

Because Ted murdered so many, many women, he did more than rob them of their lives. He robbed them of their specialness, too. It is too easy, and expedient, to present them as a list of names; it is impossible to tell each victim’s story within the confines of one book. All those bright, pretty, beloved young women became, of necessity, ‘Bundy victims’. And only Ted stayed in the spotlight.

The Stranger Beside Me (page 507)

Rule highlights that, and many of the other ways that media coverage of serial killers and the public’s thirst to know are problematic – a particularly interesting position for a true crime writer to take. At several points throughout The Stranger Beside Me, newspaper reporting stymies the investigation, and Rule alludes to the possibility that media coverage spurs on killers with designs on infamy.

She tried to mitigate that ethical problem, however, by only publishing The Stranger Beside Me once Bundy had been tried and convicted, knowing he would never again be a free man and his reign of terror was over. The boook went on to become her first best-seller (and she had 34 more after). The thing is, the original text of The Stranger Beside Me ended before, well, The End. It wraps up when Bundy is sentenced to death a third time, for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but a death sentence is never really the end of a story like this one.

So, Rule has appended updates in subsequent editions, covering Bundy’s response to her book (first, he demanded money, then he froze her out, then he “forgave” her – what a guy), his endless appeals, the signing of his death warrant(s), the waxing and waning media attention, his surreptitious fathering of a child from Death Row, and his final confessions before his execution. Really, there’s just as much story in the afterwords as there is in the book proper.

At first, I really enjoyed The Stranger Beside Me as a chilling, spooky read… but as the end grew closer, and the true impact of Bundy’s crimes became more tangible, it was no longer spooky so much as desperately sad. It’s a mind-blowing excellent read, but it made me Feel A Lot Of Things (which is a testament, really, to its excellence, and Rule’s skill as a true crime writer). I scoured my notes looking for a criticism, and could only find this: there were quite a few odd typos and misprints, which seemed strange in a book that has circulated so widely and been re-published so many times. So, on the whole, it’s a great read, even if you’re sick to death of hearing about Ted Bundy.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Stranger Beside Me:

  • “I thought this book was boring and poorly written. I’m sorry the author is dead, but she really wasn’t very talented. I’ve yet to read an intriguing account of Ted Bundy.” – Lisa
  • “I’m not sure why this is so important to me but did anyone else notice she lies about her age? In the preface she says she was 35 in 1971 and claims a “10 year” age difference with Bundy. She actually turned 40 in 1971 and was almost exactly 15 years his senior. Was it just vanity?” – A Reader
  • “Couldn’t be happier! I purchased a signed copy of my favorite book, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. It arrived quickly and in the condition promised. Maybe a bit unconventional, but my fiancé and I are using it for part of the centerpiece at our sweetheart table on our upcoming wedding day, so needless to say I’m completely happy with the whole experience.” – Lindsay
  • “While reading this, I kept saying in my head, “Just die already”. Thank God that he was stupid enough to head to Florida where those types of evil monstrosities were simply not tolerated, unlike some other states that seriously messed up.” – Little Miss Fun

Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

I’ve had a copy of Murder In Mississippi on my shelves since I first heard John Safran talking about the process of writing it on the now-defunct Sunday Night Safran radio program (and it’s actually the second book I’ve reviewed on that basis, the first was Religion For Atheists). It was published in 2013, and later in the U.S. under the title God’ll Cut You Down (the Johnny Cash lyric, quoted in the book’s epigraph). I remember Safran saying on his show that the title changed because Murder In Mississippi sounds very exotic in Australia, but to a U.S. audience it sounds like “Murder In New South Wales” (I checked with an American friend, and she confirmed).

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The book’s subtitle is: “The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book”. So, even though it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for years, perhaps it’s a good thing I waited to read and review Murder In Mississippi – it’s only become more zeitgeist-y over time.

The author, John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. As he says himself, on page 2 of Murder In Mississippi: “I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie – like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.”

Murder In Mississippi starts when Safran – as a “bit” for a documentary – tried to join the Ku Klux Klan. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t overlook his Jewishness, and declined his application. As part of that endeavour, he spent a day in Mississippi with notorious white supremacist Richard Barrett. Barrett didn’t take kindly to being the butt of one of Safran’s jokes, and made sufficient legal threats to stop the footage ever going to air. A year and a half later, Safran learned that Barrett had been killed (allegedly) by a young black man.

Safran was spooked, and intrigued. Drawing his inspiration from classic true crime books (In Cold Blood, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and “a couple of less famous ones”), he decided he had to investigate and write the story. Doing so meant picking up sticks and plonking himself down in the American South with nothing more than a hunch and a penchant for asking nosy questions (seriously, Safran didn’t even have an advance or any publishing support when he decided to do this). That’s where the similarities between Safran and his predecessors end, however; he’s certainly a lot more frank with the reader about his trickery and creative license than Capote ever was. “All those true crime books were written before the internet,” Safran says on page 29. “These days, you can’t get away with anything.”

Safran embarks on his investigation with all the preconceptions you’d expect upon hearing that a white supremacist might have been murdered by a black man. He charged in with a bit of a white saviour mentality, to be honest. He thought he’d EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass.

A brief overview of the crime at the center of Murder In Mississippi: on 22 April 2010, a neighbour called emergency services and reported seeing smoke rising from Barrett’s home. Firefighters found his corpse near the back door of the house, and an autopsy revealed thirty-five stab wounds, traumatic injuries to the head, and rib fractures.

The investigators pieced together a story and timeline that involved Vincent McGee – who was out on parole, after serving most of a sentence for assault and grand larceny – doing some yard work for Barrett in the afternoon, returning to the house that evening and stabbing Barrett, then returning again a third time to set fire to the property in an effort to conceal his crime. They proposed a number of motives for McGee’s alleged crime, mainly robbing Barrett (his wallet and gun were missing), and/or rejecting a sexual advance made by Barrett. Safran was the only one who started asking questions about race.

When Safran arrived in Mississippi, McGee was being held in remand pending trial. Safran was hoping to get the preliminary interviews out of the way and then get his court reporter on, figuring that the Truth Would Come Out as the prosecutor and defense did battle… only McGee entered a guilty plea, and was sentenced to 65 years in prison. That left Safran scratching his arse, wondering where the heck to go from there. It completely destroyed his preconceived narrative (because miscarriage-of-justice stories should really end with the wrongfully-imprisoned man going free, at least in a pre-Serial world).

Murder In Mississippi therefore became a book about the process of researching and writing a true crime book, far more than a book about the crime itself. Searching my feelings about half-way through, as I scanned the obligatory glossy photo inserts, I realised I cared about whether Safran actually got onto McGee’s prison visitor list to interview the man in person, far more than I cared whether McGee actually committed a crime and/or what actually happened at Barrett’s house that night. Safran’s investigation, his frustrations and his doubts are the focus of the story.

“In Mississippi, the more layers of onion I peel, the more I’m standing in a mess of onion.”

Murder In Mississippi (Page 280)

There was actually something quite comforting about reading a fellow Australian’s efforts to wade into American race relations. Neither Safran nor I can pretend to truly understand the divide between white and black in the American South; all we can do is ask nosy questions and make inferences from what we understand of racism in our own backyards. Still, he has the gall to ask far nosier questions than I ever would, which meant I learned a lot.

Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award (True Crime) for his efforts, and enjoyed the process so much that he went on to write Depends What You Mean By Extremist (my review of that one to follow, soon, probably). All told, this was an interesting, compelling, and at-times hilarious read, one I highly recommend to true crime fans and Race Trekkies alike.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murder In Mississippi:

  • “Rambling and unimportant. However, I applaud the effort and wish Mr. Safran success.” – cWallin
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