Safran's true crime story investigates race in Mississippi

Tuesday, October 29, 2013
John Safran with Richard Barrett.

Murder in Mississippi
John Safran
Penguin, 2013
368 pages.

There probably has never been a true-crime book quite like Murder in Mississippi.

Melbourne-based “documentary filmmaker of sorts” John Safran filmed a segment for his most recent TV show Race Relations that featured Mississippian white supremacist Richard Barrett. Barrett took legal action, however, preventing any footage of him being used.

After these events, Barrett was murdered by a young black man. The event generaed a lot of media coverage and Safran hopped on a plane for Mississippi.

It appears at first that the killing may have been politically motivated. But throughout the course of his book, Safran investigates various possibilities and talks to a wide range of different people. Many pieces of information are brought to light that pose serious questions about a wide array of possiblities.

Was Barrett secretly gay? How serious was he about his white supremacy? Was he just some bullshitting con-man? Was he a paedophile?

Most people Safran talks to seem to have dramatically different ideas about who Barrett really was. His many Black neighbours refused to believe he was actually a white supremacist, but based on his political activities one would have to disagree.

Barrett’s killer’s motivations are different according to different people. Different pieces of evidence seem to contradict other pieces of evidence. The killer, too, is shrouded in some mystery.

Some think Barrett and his killer were in a relationship, others say it was money related, most do not seem to think there was any real race element.

The book gives the reader a strong idea about the nature of the relationship between the white and Black Mississippians Mississippians. It conveys incredibly well just how wide-spread and vicious racism is in Mississippi.

It does a similar thing for Mississippian attitudes towards gay people. In Mississippi, a special kind of homophobia is strong, where homosexuality is hated, but as long as gay people are not overt about it, then people tolerate it in their own odd way.

At places in the book, number of gay Mississippians seem just as racist as many of the white supremacists Safran encounters — a sign of how deep racism is in the state.

Safran remarks at one point that the people white supremacists most often attack on their radio shows are white liberals, white conservatives and other white supremacists.

The general political atmosphere in Mississippi comes through very strongly through Safran’s exploration into these themes and others, such as the strong sense of sadness in the state that the South lost the Civil War.

One of the things that sets this book apart from many other true-crime books is that it was written not by a professional true-crime writer or author.

It is devoid of the monotonous same old same old drudgery that often accompanies many true-crime books. Authors can sometimes get too cosy in their genre, and so their work suffers.

The book's style is often quirky and has many moments where Safran summons up his unique sense of humour. A John Safran fan can tell he wrote it.

It also has many instances of Safran relating his thought and feelings regarding the book and how he is portraying the people in the book, which keeps it interesting.

I’m not a huge fan of true-crime books and this is probably the first true-crime book I’ve ever read that I have found engaging. Murder in Mississippi is a well written, funny and very insightful book — if tackling a bit of a depressing topic.

From GLW issue 986