Author: John Safran
Published: 2013 by Penguin Group (Australia)
Read: November 2013
Categories: Non-fiction, crime, Australian authors
Why it made it to the top of the pile: As a fan of both John Safran documentaries and true crime stories, this book was eagerly anticipated. Also, it was homework for a Reading Room hosted Google+ hangout with John on December 4.
Trivia Tidbit: The literary character John most identifies with is Don Quixote (he explains why in the Google+ hangout)
Full Disclosure: Purchased
Controversial issues and John Safran go together like the American South and a mint julep. Since streaking through Jerusalem and breaking into Disneyland during the first series of Race Around the World, he has gone on to ask documentary subjects uncomfortable questions, primarily about religion and race. When filming his TV series Race Relations, he spent some time with Richard Barrett, a Mississippian white supremacist, and tricked him into thinking he had African blood. Barrett subsequently sent 'cease and desist' letters to the ABC and the segment never aired. Twelve months later, Richard Barrett was killed in his home by a young black man. There were whispers of disputes over money and of disputes over sex. John Safran jumped on a plane to Mississippi to cover the trial.
Reading Murder in Mississippi is like listening to a John Safran documentary. Like the cameraman running behind him, the reader follows Safran to meetings with district attorneys, lawyers, white supremacists, journalists, the victim's family members, the accused's family members, the accused's girlfriends and the accused himself, Vincent McGee. You feel the stifling heat, the bumpy roads, and parochialism and the suspicion of Mississippi, and though he is aware of all of this, Safran continues to plot his course, curiosity and dogged determination leading the way.
Part-way though the book, Safran realises that this is not going to be the uncovering of a grave injustice, but there remains a sense that there is a lot of action beneath the surface in Rankin County. Richard Barrett was not a particularly likeable or liked man, but, as it turns out, neither is Vincent McGee. The fact that the story continues to hold the reader's interest long after any empathy or interest in the two main characters is gone is a tribute to Safran's storytelling style.