Australian radio and television personality John Safran is a huge fan of true crime books, so when a White Supremicist he had met during his travels in America was murdered John decided to write his own true crime book.
John Safran met white nationalist Richard Barrett when filming a segment for his 2009 ABC television series John Safran's Race Relations.
Safran duped Barrett into unknowingly supplying a DNA sample which he then had tested to show that the outspoken racist had African DNA. The segment was never aired because of threats of legal action from Barrett.
In April 2010 Barrett was murdered by his neighbour, a young black man named Vincent Justin McGee. McGee's guilt was never in doubt. What nobody could seem to agree on is why he committed the crime. Was it about race, sex or money? Intrigued and eager for his own "Truman Capote moment", John Safran returned to Mississippi to find out.
Many non fiction writers, such as the "Queen of True Crime" Ann Rule, keep themselves at a remove from the events and people they are describing. By contrast, Safran is very much a character in his own story, a bit like Michael Moore in his documentaries. The book is full of Safran's own reflections on the people he meets and he relates things to his own experiences and other true crime books he has read. For example, on seeing the Confederate flag displayed at Richard Barrett's white nationalist headquarters he reflects on how the Confederate flag t-shirt he had owned as a child and what it meant to him in such a different context.
The story is rambling and Safran's investigative skills leave something to be desired. The more people he interviews, the more confusing the story of Barrett's death becomes, with dozens of mutually contradictory stories about Barrett and McGee both. Whether or not he is able to solve the mystery is beside the point. The interest is in the people he meets and in Mississippi itself.
Readers familiar with Safran's pranks on Race Relations
and other shows might be pleasantly surprised to find that as well as being funny he can be compassionate and understanding. He treats his interviewees well and for the most part leaves the silliness out for a change. His people skills are a little clumsy at times but he clearly means well. Some of the little jobs he performs for the jailed McGee seem like the start of a dark comedy film, but all appears to end well, or about as well as a story about a man who brutally stabbed another man thirty-five times possibly can.
Murder in Mississippi
is a rambling unstructured story, but also a fascinating insight into the life of Richard Barrett and the decaying remnants of the White Nationalist movement. I recommend it for true crime fans and anyone interested in race issues.