Some say red ochre is the color of blood. Found in burial sites the world over – painted on bones, sprinkled in graves – anthropologists debate the significance of the powder. A ritual meant to purify the body? A burial rite so the dead would go to paradise? Whatever its true significance, red ochre is highly symbolic, which is why detectives were so intrigued to find red ochre on the murdered body of Jane Britton, a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard University.
Becky Cooper was a Harvard student herself when she first learned of Jane’s tragic death. Some 40 years later, the story of the murder had taken on the quality of folklore or a morality tale: Once a beautiful young student had an affair with her married professor. She went on an archaeological dig with him. Her body was found sprinkled with red ochre. Nobody was ever charged with the crime. Whether the story was truth or myth, Becky Cooper couldn’t get Jane out of her head. She was obsessed.
The truth would take Cooper into a deep dive in both time and place. Back to the insular, backbiting world of academia in the late 1960s when professors fought for tenure, students fought for grades, and women fought for their place at the academic table. Harvard’s Anthropology Department was a microcosm of this world where a charismatic professor could make or break a career with grades, letters of recommendation, or the right to dig at an archaeological site. Jane Britton, witty, vivacious and intelligent, was also part of this cut-throat world. However, she was still learning to play the game.
Suspenseful and surprising, We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper is an intriguing true crime narrative that finally solves a cold case that haunted the Harvard community for 50 years.