My first experience with John Safran’s work was in 2004 with John Safran vs God, an eight-part documentary television series in which Safran road-tests a variety of religions. I re-watched this series a couple of times. Safran approaches his subject matter with a great sense of adventure and an endearing mix of cynicism, earnestness and humour. He also creates a strong personal connection with his viewers (and now his readers). There is always the sense that Safran is not only prepared to do whatever is necessary for his story, but that he will also share his experiences fully and honestly with his audience.
Over the past few years I have regularly tuned in to Sunday Night Safran, a radio show (and podcast) broadcast on Triple J that focuses on religion and race, co-hosted by John Safran and Catholic priest Father Bob Maguire. It was through this podcast that I first heard Safran had a book in the works. Having listened each week as Safran discussed his writing progress and process (for a while he contemplated going the writing-under-the-influence route, ala Hunter S. Thompson) I was itching to read the book as soon as it came out. Living in Phnom Penh made it difficult to get my hands on a copy, and I had to resort to purchasing a Kindle version (for my PC). I usually don’t like reading on my computer, but Murder in Mississippi had me hooked from the beginning. I stayed up late into the evenings, in all sorts of awkward reading-on-laptop-in-bed positions, steeped in Safran’s impressions of the Deep South.
A bit of book background: while filming the documentary series Race Relations (broadcast on ABC in 2009) Safran met (and played a prank on) white supremacist Richard Barrett in Mississippi. A year later Barrett was murdered by Vincent McGee; a young African American man who had been working for Barrett. At first glance the crime seemed racially driven, but as whispers of sex and money emerged motivations became murkier. Upon hearing about the murder John Safran decided this was his “Truman Capote moment”, and headed back to Mississippi to find out more.
I have very little experience reading true crime fiction (likewise, Safran admits he has no experience writing it), so the genre itself was new to me. In a way, true crime seems to sit somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. The author does not have the freedom to invent a narrative, nor do they have all the answers needed to present an event as it really, truly happened. While investigating Richard Barrett’s murder Safran encountered people who gossiped, people who withheld information, people who said too much, and people who wouldn’t say anything at all. Trying to piece together the Truth from such a mess of raw material is – in a way – a creative exercise. Safran had to choose which encounters to include, and which to leave out, and in doing so he strings together his own narrative, imposes his own meaning. As Carol Shields says: “It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories.” In reading Murder in Mississippi we are reading Safran’s version of the story, accepting his arrangements and decisions.
Murder in Mississippi in many ways resembles Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (a book Safran admits he was influenced by, along with Capote’s In Cold Blood). Safran is himself a character in the book (as Berendt is in Midnight), and the story largely focuses on describing and interviewing people who are in some way connected to Barrett and McGee. Safran is certainly invested in finding out why McGee murdered Barrett, but in the end what makes the story really engaging is the way he describes and interacts with the people he interviews. The moments he chooses to include make Murder in Mississippi a compelling portrait of a time and a place; a portrait that is unique to John Safran. Some of the most interesting moments of the book, for example, are the phone calls between Safran and Vincent McGee where they barter over Green Dot cards (a sort of cash card that allow McGee to make purchases from prison) and information. When asked why he included those conversations in the book Safran said that he felt that there was some meaning there, even though he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. The Green Dot phone calls are an important part of what makes the book what it is – sinister, funny, personal, and real.
I enjoyed the structure of the book, as well. Its short chapters, snippets of dialogue, and inserted clips of media give it a documentary feel. Most of all, however, I appreciated Safran’s personal investment in the book – his willingness to become part of the story, which at times reads almost like a diary. Murder in Mississippi does feel a little more mature than Safran’s television work, and reading Safran (rather than watching him) is a more serious, intimate experience. The humour in Murder is much darker, too, though just as entertaining.
My only criticism is that the book seems to end quite abruptly, with little after-journey reflection or summing up. It was difficult to gauge how to feel about the whole experience, or even how Safran felt (other than perhaps bewildered). It would have been nice to see Safran draw a few – if loose – conclusions about what he learnt while in Mississippi.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed Safran’s storytelling – his personal asides, his determination to meet and talk to as many people as possible, his awkwardness and acknowledgement of the fact that he is doing this for the first time and struggling. A well-written, mysterious, honest, and often surreal book. I will be on the lookout for Safran’s next adventure.
John Safran is an Australian documentary filmmaker. His series John Safran vs God won Australian Film Industry awards for Best Comedy Series and Most Original Concept. Murder in Mississippi will be released in the United States under a different title.