Murder in Mississippi by John Safran

In brief: John Safran finds out a man he interviewed for his television show, Race Relations, has been murdered. He goes to Mississippi to find out why.

The good: Safran’s writing style is entertaining and easy to read.

The not-so-good: It’s true crime, so the ending doesn’t come neatly wrapped.

Why I chose it: Have enjoyed his TV shows and a copy sent to me by Penguin Australia and The Reading Room – thanks!

Year: 2013

Pages: 368

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Setting: Australia and America

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Most Australians have probably heard of John Safran. His television shows tend to attract controversy and letters to the editor – me, I find them insightful and willing to tackle the big issues, such as race and religion. So how does John Safran on the page compare to him on the screen?

Very, very well. In fact, I’d go so far to say that I enjoyed his writing more than the television programmes (except for the lack of Father Bob). Safran picks a big topic for his first book – true crime. To make things even more complex, a white supremacist John interviewed for Race Relations has now been found murdered. The murderer’s identity isn’t in doubt – but what makes the crime more curious is that it was a black man. What was the motive? Was it race?

John travels to Mississippi to find out more. He tells his story of tracking down and meeting the victim’s associates (Richard didn’t really have friends) and family. Things get even more odd when Richard’s will is revealed – how are the beneficiaries linked to Richard and why is the government of Iran on there? John’s investigations lead him to think that this wasn’t a race-motivated murder – was it related to homosexuality? Was it just an argument? John tracks down the murderer’s family and even befriends Vincent in gaol. Armed with a plethora of Walmart Green Dot cards, he’ll find out why Vincent changed his story of what motivated him to murder.

While the book isn’t an expose of a murder or miscarriage of justice, it’s a fascinating insight into Mississippi, past and present. John details previous race-related crimes in the state and how they were dealt with (or swept under the carpet). His descriptions of the people, both black and white, poor and rich are fascinating. I found it really amusing when one of his interviewees asked about the Australian Aboriginal people and John just about jumped out of his skin, as most people seemed determinedly fixed on Mississippi prior to that. John also provides an insight into his own Jewish heritage in Melbourne.

As stories go, it’s not exactly a three act narrative because it’s real life. If you like your true crime stories to have a secret murder uncovered and the wrong person incarcerated before being saved by a heroic journalist, you won’t enjoy this. If you enjoy the unfolding of the details behind a crime with a marriage proposal by proxy, you’ll like this. The book is injected with humour (including the use of the word ‘murble’ for when John doesn’t understand a word said) and I enjoyed the way it was told, diary style as events unfold. The language is easy-going and engaging; the pace quick enough to maintain interest without becoming overwhelmed with names and motives.

Kudos must go to the cover designer(s) of this book. In real life, the cover almost looks three dimensional, with parts of it burned out. The text is a little dramatic, but it’s all part of a conversation he had with Richard’s murderer.

John’s included his contact details at the end of the book for leads for his next true crime story – I hope you find something John, because I’ll definitely read the book!

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