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New Book Returns to an Irresistible Theme: the Harvard Murder

Over the course of her research, it became “a gateway into this much larger story about abuses of power of the institution,” she said in a phone interview. “And it wasn’t at all where I expected to go.”

As her book opens, Cooper has graduated from Harvard but is back on campus. She sits in on a class taught by the professor rumored to have committed the crime. By now, she has uncovered the dead woman’s name — Jane Britton — and pored over photographs of her from a dig in Iran. And she has combed through every press report about her killing, which remained unsolved.

It occurred early on Jan. 7, 1969, the day Britton was supposed to take her general exams in archaeology. By the next day, it was front-page news, in some papers bumping reporting on Sirhan Sirhan’s upcoming trial for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Cooper listens, rapt, to the Harvard professor’s lectures, sifting them for clues. (When the professor, describing an ancient Israeli site where people were buried under their houses, remarks, “the dead are kept close to you,” she jots down the line and circles it in her notebook — surely, it’s suspicious!) She painstakingly recreates Britton’s life, tracking down her friends, her brother, her classmates, her boyfriend at the time and every still-living law enforcement officer who investigated her death.

She acquires Britton’s letters and journals. She files Freedom of Information Act requests with the C.I.A., F.B.I., Drug Enforcement Administration, State Department and Defense Department, as well as records requests with the police in Boston and Cambridge and the district attorney’s offices in Middlesex and Sussex Counties. She trawls Websleuths, a cold-case site. She even spends a month on a dig in Bulgaria, in emulation of her dead subject.

“We Keep the Dead Close” swells with false leads and red herrings — it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the supposedly murderous professor turns out to be innocent of the crime. And here is where Cooper’s book takes a novel, contemporary twist.

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