John Safran – Murder In Mississippi

Last year’s Festival Of Dangerous Ideas was keynoted by David Simon, creator ofThe Wire. Arguably the most disappointing offering of the event, the focus should have really been put on the closing speech of the Sunday, given by the national treasure that is John Safran. Safran was there to talk about his experience writing Murder In Mississippi, published by Penguin, and no doubt subsequently purchased by every member of the audience. Even in the short-preview we were giving that night, the whole affair seemed like utter madness.

John Safran first came on to the scene as part of Race Around The World, the short-lived Australian program that sent it’s participants to ten different locations around the globe, with ten days in each to find a topic and produce a four-minute film about it.

From the second week on Safran’s humor and unique approach to topics meant he stood head and shoulders above the rest. Breaking in to Disneyland, being baptised in Africa, putting a Voodoo curse on his ex and streaking through Jerusalem in the name of St. Kilda Football Club are among the occurrences that were heavily chatted about in the days after his films airing.Despite finishing last (for turning in all his assignments late), Safran was now nationally known, and soon found himself on government funded TV and radio, regularly causing controversy, but always with a point and always on the humorous as opposed to offensive side. Race Relations (where he famously visited the Ku Klux Klan headquarters and interviewed their leader before casually dropping in that he was Jewish) and John Safran vs God followed on, ex-communicating him from the Jewish community he’d grown up and continued to live around, but making him a hero to students and a household name around the country.

The reason for the lengthy introduction is that you need a little background on Safran to fully understand why this is such a great book. Murder In Mississippi is his first true crime novel, the starting point of which was pulled together by a series of unlikely events that put him in an opportunistic situation.The crime in question is the murder of one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists, by a black man. As it happens, Safran had visited and interviewed the man as part of Race Relations, in one of the ballsiest segments of his career. Legal action stopped it ever making it to air, but the details surrounding Richard Barrett’s death at the hands of a black teenager, and Safran’s earlier encounter sparked enough interest to send the self-proclaimed ‘race trekkie’ to America’s deep-south to investigate.

It’s a brilliant read, mostly as it’s written in Safran’s uniquely neurotic inquisitive manner. Kerouac wrote in stream of consciousness and Safran has stuck to what makes him so compelling, which is writing for TV. He stumbles his way around proving and disproving various theories, coherently recording his own ADD thoughts on the case as new ideas pop in to his head.

Can’t recommend this enough, or any of Safran’s work to be honest. Much like a Bill Bryson factual account, it’s the personality and fearlessness from the author that really makes Murder In Mississippi essential reading. The way he interacts with characters as he try and puts together the next steps, and the methods he pursues to uncover more details are described straight from his own mind and contexted within only his own experience, surprisingly making it all the more accessible.

Check the video preview below, publisher description underneath that.

via Penguin Books
When filming his TV series Race Relations, John Safran spent an uneasy couple of days with one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists. A year later, he heard that the man had been murdered – and what was more, the killer was black.

At first the murder seemed a twist on the old Deep South race crimes. But then more news rolled in. Maybe it was a dispute over money, or most intriguingly, over sex. Could the infamous racist actually have been secretly gay, with a thing for black men? Did Safran have the last footage of him alive? Could this be the story of a lifetime? Seizing his Truman Capote moment, he jumped on a plane to cover the trial.

Over six months, Safran got deeper and deeper into the South, becoming entwined in the lives of those connected with the murder – white separatists, black campaigners, lawyers, investigators, neighbours, even the killer himself. And the more he talked with them, the less simple the crime, and the world, seemed.

Murder in Mississippi is a brilliantly innovative true-crime story. Taking us places only he can, Safran paints an engrossing, revealing portrait of a dead man, his murderer, the place they lived and the process of trying to find out the truth about anything.