‘Murder in Mississippi’ by John Safran


2013,  368 p.

I’m not really sure how this book ended up on my bookshelves, because I’m not a great fan of John Safran and nor do I particularly like True Crime as a genre. I think that I received it as part of a subscription to Crikey, which has always given John Safran a fair bit of support.

So who is John Safran, you might ask? He’s a Melbourne-based satirist, radio personality and documentary maker who has made religion and race his stalking ground. He often pranks the people that he interviews, and it was indeed one of these very stunts that set him off in the year-long pursuit of this story of murder in Mississippi, very far from Melbourne.

As part of his ABC documentary series Race Relations he cultivated a friendship with white supremacist, Richard Barrett, and found himself surprised that he actually liked him more than he thought he would. After surreptitiously obtaining Barrett’s DNA, he was invited by Barrett to say a few words at the Spirit of America rally that Barrett had organized. Microphone in hand – and completely unknown to Barrett- he announced that the DNA test results showed that Barrett had Afro-American heritage. As Safran left the meeting, exulting at his victory and with barely a twinge of conscience, he did not divulge to the startled audience or Barrett that any detailed American DNA test would show a trace of Afro-American heritage. We never got to see this episode. When Barrett threatened legal action, they pulled the show.

However, Safran’s  nose for a good story twitched when he learned that Richard Barrett had been murdered by a young Afro-American teenager. And,so he took himself off to Mississippi to chase the story.

In the early statements given by the murderer, 22 year old Vincent McGee, he did not deny the murder or the attempted arson of Barrett’s house to cover his traces. He did, however, claim that Barrett had tried to hit on him, and that in a flash of rage he had stabbed him after Barrett had gone after him. However, when the case finally came to trial, he changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to 65 years jail. Why?

And this is what Safran is trying to find out. The trifecta of sex, race and power is a heady one, and Safran is not sure whether Barratt, McGee or both are exploiting it. He is drawn into McGee’s world, and it’s not clear just who is exploiting whom. Court files disappear; there are small deceptions that may mask larger ones; and the edges of the crime become murkier. Safran’s fantasy of being the journalistic avenger who is going to prove McGee’s innocence  soon disappears.

Reading this book was very much like listening to a podcast over about six episodes. That’s probably about how long it took me to read the book, and I’m not sure that there was any great advantage in reading it over listening to it: in fact, I think that it would be better as a podcast. There’s a lot of dialogue, and Safran’s narrative is very voice-over-ish. I didn’t really get a clear visual sense of the characters he features until I found the pictures in the middle of the book, and I often found myself trying to flip back to work out who was who (something that an index might have made easier).

I started this book just as the furore over George Floyd was spilling out into the streets across the world, including Australia. I had expected that I would be reading a book about injustice, but the book is not as clearcut as I expected it to be. It was well-received  and was awarded the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime in 2014. However, I think that I prefer my true-crime as a podcast.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: my own bookshelves.

4 responses to “‘Murder in Mississippi’ by John Safran

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    The Sydney Morning Herald said that a surprising number of people seemed to think Safran was a stand-up comic while he thought of himself more of a provocateur than a comedian. But that made it difficult for Australians to read a book filled with murder, racism, conspiracy and injustice, especially in a year when police murders of black Americans have been before our eyes full time.

    True crime is a difficult genre to read and even more difficult to write.

    • And Safran’s own role is so slippery, because he does tend to act as provocateur- what a good description. He’s not just an observer, or at least, he didn’t start out that way.

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