True Safran: Murder in Mississippi

As we swelter away in our first real heatwave of the season, what’s better to do than read, or write or better still – both?!

Today’s review is of a book that I’ve recommended to at least a dozen people since I read it in November. John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi (Penguin) is skilfully written, effortlessly compelling and a really easy read, despite its dark subject matter…

murder in mississippiWhen filming his TV series ‘Race Relations’, John Safran spent an uneasy couple of days with one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists. A year later, he heard that the man had been murdered – and what was more, the killer was black.

At first the murder seemed a twist on the old Deep South race crimes. But then more news rolled in. Maybe it was a dispute over money, or most intriguingly, over sex. Could the infamous racist actually have been secretly gay, with a thing for black men? Did Safran have the last footage of him alive? Could this be the story of a lifetime? Seizing his Truman Capote moment, he jumped on a plane to cover the trial.

Over six months, Safran got deeper and deeper into the South, becoming entwined in the lives of those connected with the murder – white separatists, black campaigners, lawyers, investigators, neighbours, even the killer himself. And the more he talked with them, the less simple the crime, and the world, seemed.

As a true crime title Murder in Mississippi has been compared to numerous other true crime books, most particularly Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Having read Capote’s book a couple of time I’d say this is a fair and interesting comparison to make. Both expose a deprivation, a kind of evil that is hard to comprehend, but in a very factual manner. They communicate shock and bemusement but not indignation. This allows the reader to observe the situation, the crime itself, objectively and almost calmly, giving us the best hope of somehow making sense of a moment of violence.

John is a talented writer and a deft storyteller but interestedly, one feature of his writing that differentiates him from other true crime writers is his subtle self-deprication. This habit of poking fun at himself (and the people around him) is fairly typical of Safran’s work, you’ll find it in his documentaries and radio work as well, and I think it adds a humility, a ‘realness’ to his stories.

“You need to know about my job to understand all this. I’m a documentary filmmaker, or sorts. That’s how I pay the bills for the flat where I’m typing these words. That’s how I buy the bagels from the bakery one minute from my flat. I say ‘of sorts’ because they’re not the straightest of documentaries. 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.

This story really begins – although I didn’t know it at the time – about ten years ago. I was filming a segment for a television series call ‘John Safran vs God’, in which I tried to join the Ku Klux Klan even though I’m Jewish.”

As a reader, his bluntness and honesty made me really trust the story that he was telling, and it’s an incredible story, made all the more incredible by the fact that John was himself, a part of the story, even if he didn’t know it at the time. He was personally involved in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the murder of Richard Barrett, and as he revisits Mississippi, he endeavours to complete the picture, to fill in that gap that is ‘during’.

“Every time I feel I’ve got a hold of Richard, he slides off again. I haven’t been able to get any sort of consensus on whether Richard might have made a pass at Vincent, and an aggressive one at that. I wonder whether the people who think Richard was gay are using ‘gay’ as another word for ‘just suspicious’. He was queer, bent, but as he literally homosexual? He was a racist, but was he aggressive enough to threaten Vincent?”

By the close of Murder in Mississippi we have a pretty good picture of the before, during and after of this violent tale, but as testament to Safran’s honestly, it’s still very difficult to say that anyone will ever really know what happened between Richard and Vincent. Richard takes his lies, double-life and ‘queerness’ to the grave, and Vincent seems to be an incarcerated bundle of misdirections, delusion and contradictions. Makes for a damn good story though…

For lovers of true crime or fans of John Safran’s work, this book is a must read. You can find out more, and pick up a copy over at Penguin.

Are you a fan of true crime? Do you have a favourite?