It’s been over ten years since John Safran first exploded onto my radar in his hilarious and confronting John Safran’s Music Jamboree. While the brilliance and daring of that show has stuck with me (as well as snippets from his subsequent documentaries and shows) it was with some hesitation that I approached his debut book, Murder in Mississippi. Hesitant not because it was a true crime book, but because my previous exposure to Safran’s work showed a certain bulldozer subtlety when it came to him presenting what he saw as the facts and motivations of those he interviewed.
If Safran’s television work is his wielding of a bulldozer, Murder in Mississippi is his driving through the Australian Dandenong Ranges (or Utahn Alpine Loop) in a sleek, responsive luxury car; powering through corners, coasting for the scenic reveals, and performing perfect handbrake turns in gravel to get the adrenalin pumping. In short, Murder in Mississippi is exhilarating, stunning and leaves you unsure which way is up or out when you’re done.
It’s an odd premise for a book, summarised succinctly on the cover “The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book.” Already Murder in Mississippi was sounding a little surreal and quirky like Safran’s previous work, but curiosity had me opening the book and fascination had me reading it at 0315 in the morning.
A quick synopsis: Safran met Richard Barrett (the white supremacist) while filming Race Relations, toured his offices, attended an awards ceremony and then pulled a stunt that is jaw-dropping in its intent and bravado. A year later Barrett was murdered by a young black man named Vincent. Murder in Mississippi details the history between Safran and Barrett, and then chronicles Safran’s travel to Mississippi (passive-aggressive airport signs and all); his meeting of key law officials, the accused’s family, white supremacists, black journalists/activists and assorted Southerners, all before he is contacted by the confessed murderer, Vincent. Transcribed telephone conversations between Safran and Vincent are included, and are a source of bafflement and fascination for both Safran and the reader in trying to work out how a man ended up dead and another ended up back behind bars.
Through the weirdness, the zigzagging opinions and lack of easy answers in Murder in Mississippi, Safran’s prose is liquid, sharp, surprising, precise – like cutting your tongue on a piece of ice in your drink. He shares his confusion, amusement and stubbornness at the proceedings and spectacles he is part of in Mississippi – he also presents his own conclusions and observations with a subtlety, clarity, depth, humour and consideration that make Murder in Mississippi an outstanding debut, as well as a phenomenal true crime and humanistic read.
- Bigots, racists and close-minded individuals (wishful thinking, I know)
- Humans over the age of twelve (eight with some careful omissions)
- Readers of engaging, thought-provoking books
- True-crime genre novices to aficionados
Not recommended for:
- Bigots, racists and close-minded individuals (realistically and sadly)
- Pollyanna-type personalities
- People who are allergic to laughing
- Anyone who cried during Milo & Otis or any tissue product advertisement
Rated: PG (some vulgar slang, racist comments, and frank, mature discussion of racism and stereotypes)
Do you read nonfiction, or crime novels? Which crime or nonfiction book has kept you up way past your bedtime? Do you think race should be addressed in books or left well alone? Have you ever read a nonfiction book about something that happened in another country and been bewildered by the events?