Book Review: Murder in Mississippi by John Safran

Where have you been all my life, true crime genre? Murder in Mississippi is my first foray into the category and I’m smitten.

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I always imagined true crime narratives espoused from the point of view of an expert, serious criminologist schooled in the science and art of detection. Instead, in Murder in Mississippi, John Safran took me on a wild, comedic ramble into America’s deep south, a place populated by white supremacists, corrupt officials, murderers, accomplices, lawyers, mothers, sisters, journalists, girlfriends and an underpinning culture of racism. Operating on instinct, whim and sometimes desperation, Safran seems to surprise even himself how close he gets to the nub of this murder backstory. It’s a story that compels Safran to delve and compels the reader to read on, despite the crazy, almost incredible way it unfolds.

From Book Depository:

“In 2009 John Safran, a controversial Australian journalist, spent an uneasy few days interviewing one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists. A year later, he hears that the man has been murdered by a young black man. But this is far from a straightforward race killing. Safran flies back to Mississippi in a bid to discover what really happened, immersing himself in a world of clashing white separatists, black lawyers, police investigators, oddball neighbours and the killer himself. In the end, he discovers just how profoundly complex the truth about someone’s life – and death – can be. A brilliantly innovative true-crime story. Safran paints an engrossing and revealing portrait of race, money, sex and power in the modern American South.”

Sounds straightforward. It’s not. Murder in Mississippi is as much about John Safran’s journey as it is about the murder. And that’s what makes it such an enthralling read. I felt like I was there, that I was unpacking the lead-up to the murder and snooping around the scene of the crime, looking over Safran’s shoulder. It felt dodgy and threatening but I was weirdly attracted, perhaps by Safran’s humour and his certain feeling that he is meant to be here, carrying out this bizarre mission. Early in the book he talks about being on a piece of elastic, drawn closer to the telling of this story, like a pilgrimage.

Before I have a chance to retreat I’m sucked into a crazy world of the unexpected, riding alongside Safran into terra absurdus where the currency is Walmart Green Dot cards and the dialect includes gems like “murble” and “murblestatic”.

I’m introduced to unlikeable (sometimes evil) characters who I only tolerate by dint of curiosity. Like a car crash from which I can’t avert my eyes.

I’ve since heard someone comment that: “it’s hard to know who is the worst of the worst amongst these characters”. So. True. They’re a gnarly bunch of ne’er-do-wells with only glimpses of anything redeeming. Still, Safran perseveres, bumbling on against the odds to find a story, to find the truth. Increasingly it becomes apparent that the truth is unlikely to be had and that the story is in the seeking not the finding.

The themes bubble over one another: racism, poverty, justice, sexual violence, greed. A touch of empty romance. There are no clear lines and no answers. Just a riveting, rambling story that exposes an unfamiliar, unendearing world. Midst it all, Safran sees a glimmer of hope:

“I’ve been on a piece of elastic my whole life, being drawn closer and closer, to this meeting in this forest today. There is no one in the world – not one of the seven billion – who would appreciate this bizarre scene more than me. The beaming black woman unaware she’s at a white nationalist rally. The white nationalists too Southern and polite to cause a scene and tell Audarshia what’s really going on. Is it too much to see this as a sign of hope?”

Thanks, John Safran for Murder in Mississippi, my compelling and uber-readable introduction to true crime. I love your language and your immediacy, your capacity to put me (with you) in the story. And, on this one read, I think I love your chosen genre. Just to be sure, I’ve centred Helen Garner’s The House of Grief in my crosshairs.




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