Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Jonh Safran is an Australian journalist who has worked around the world; sometimes, it seems, as an investigative reporter, sometimes no more than an immersive prankster.
It was in more that second role that he came upon an American lawyer and white supremacist, Richard Barrett, whom he was able to catch out via a DNA test revealing that Barrett had African ancestry for one of his TV shows. In 2010 Safran heard that Barrett had been murdered and that a local black youth had been arrested. Safran went to Rankin County, Mississippi to investigate.
Recounting his enquiries, interviews and archive visits, Safran takes us through his time in the state; his discovery of Barrett's miserable home, his proximity to his black neighbours giving no indication of his desire for the separation of the races; the discovery of Barrett's duplicity in his political dealings (he never lived up to his promises; his talk of the corridors of power always meant the public parts of public buildings), and his final strangeness: he made the government of Iran his heir.
As Safran speaks to friends and relatives of both murdered man and killer (there was little doubt of who killed Ricard Barrett) he finds doubts about both figures. Barrett was a lawyer, but not a very effective one; he had left the East Coast where he was born to get away from Jews and Hispanics but moved into a black neighbourhood in Rankin; then evidence emerges that he had moved not for racial reasons but because he had been stealing from a relative back East.
Meanwhile, Safran was able to make contact with, first, the killer's relations and, then, the killer himself, parolee Vincent McGee, who had quickly pleaded guilty and took a sixty-five year sentence with equanimity. Safran fed him with chain-store gift cards that can be used in prison in return for conversation. Unfortunately, Barrett in his lifetime had learned to be indirect in his speech, while the ill-educated McGee was almost inarticulate.
Safran talks to their relatives, to the police investigators, the lawyers, recording everything as he goes, and finally realises that he will never know what the true relationship of Barrett and McGee might have been; he will never know what made tick a white supremacist who made Iran his heir; nor why a young man on parole should throw away so much of his life so quickly.
Murder In Mississippi is written very much in day-by-day journal style, without the summaries that one would find in a classical detective story, and without any attempt to clarify the chronology of events. If you like, say, John Ronson's work for British TV then you will enjoy John Safran. Find the interview Safran gave an Australian website, where he says of his investigation “I learnt that everyone is an unreliable narrator”* to read more about his approach. I would have preferred him to be more certain, but perhaps that is just me.