All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

on November 20, 2013

Murder In MississippiMurder In Mississippi
John Safran
Penguin Books Aus
2013, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley/print copy courtesy of The Reading

When Australian documentary maker John Safran was filming his TV show Race Relations he spent a couple of days in America with one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists culminating in a prank where he announced at a function that the man had African heritage. ABC was hit with a legal letter rescinding permission to show the footage on the TV show and that was that. A year later he heard that the man he had met with, Richard Barrett, had been brutally murdered. And that the killer was a black man.

Safran decided to fly to the United States to cover the murder and the trial, intrigued by the way in which things had played out. Had the young man taken offense to Barrett’s views and just cracked? Then more and more bizarre information, half truths and stories kept coming out. Was the murder a dispute over money? The young black man, Vincent McGee had been working for Barrett, doing odd jobs like mowing the lawn. Or was Barrett secretly gay? With an attraction towards young black men? One of McGee’s original statements said that Barrett had made unwanted sexual advances towards him, which was why McGee had killed him.

Safran spent months in Mississippi interviewing everyone he could that was connected to the case (and some people that weren’t) as well as others that he thought might be able to give him any sort of insight into what it is like living in parts of Mississippi. He talked to white supremacists, black journalists and civil rights campaigners, the family of the victim and the accused as well as even the killer himself, swapping Walmart Green Dot Cards for information. But the more Safran searches for the truth, the more bizarre this case becomes.

I have been reading more non-fiction lately and this is my first true crime read in a long time. I remember Safran and his rise to fame in Race Around The World and his parody song Not The Sunscreen Songboth of which were pretty popular when I was in late high school. Since then he’s made some documentaries, such as the aforementioned Race Relations as well as John Safran’s Music Jamboree and John Safran vs God. These days he also has a radio show on JJJ with the notoriously cranky priest (and fellow from the Penguin stable) Father Bob Maguire. Given Safran had a connection with the deceased, having spent some time with him, albeit to perform a prank, he was perfectly placed to then cover the strange situation of his murder.

Safran immerses himself in the case and no one can question his dedication. He relentlessly pursues people to talk to him, questing for information, even just their time. He writes with a conversational slightly self-deprecating style that still occasionally injects the humour he is so well known for as he gives away as much about himself as he does about the case and the people who surround it. The more information he collects, the more bizarre the case becomes and the more questions Safran has. Barrett was a known white supremacist who lived in a predominently black neighbourhood and had a black man, Vincent McGee working casually for him. McGee, perhaps the world’s most inept criminal, was apprehended for the crime almost immediately and set about confessing… several times, each confession being a different story. In the first instance, McGee claimed that Barrett had made unwelcome advances towards him, a claim he later rescinded in favour of saying it was over money. Members of his own family believe that there might’ve been a sexual exchange for money but that McGee would be so afraid of this coming out that he would change his story several times.

Reading about these parts of Mississippi is almost like visiting another world. Barrett claims to be the founder of the American skinheads, a believer that the only real Americans are white Americans. A dragger of the heels in terms of segregation Mississippi is the sole state that retains the Confederate flag on its state flag and white supremacist groups are still funneling money into separatist schools. And yet despite Barrett’s beliefs, he chose to live in an area with many African Americans, most of which had no idea about his politics and who mourned him when he died. They found him friendly and helpful. Barrett proved to be a bit of a man of mystery, even to the FBI who had a file on him but couldn’t really seem to discern his motives or his true agenda.

It’s probably unfortunate for Safran that McGee plead guilty which meant that the trial didn’t take place for him to cover but he was still able to gather enough information through his interviews in the lead up to the hearing. Some of his interactions with McGee himself prove to be perhaps unintentionally, some of the more comedic conversations particularly McGee’s devotion to acquiring Walmart Green Dot cards which are, I think, a bit like a pre-paid VISA. Prisoners can only be given cards in a certain amount so Safran has to buy multiple ones, splitting the cost over several of them and giving the codes to McGee down the phone and McGee then uses them to buy prepaid phone credit. In one conversation McGee expresses interest in coming to Australia until he discovers that we don’t have Walmart and therefore, no Walmart Green Dot cards either.

Murder In Mississippi doesn’t suffer too much for the lack of a juicy trial, it’s still an intriguing story full of half-truths, rumours, conflicting views and a victim who was many things, none of them seemingly compatible with the others. And it’s proved me wrong in some of my assumptions about true crime, that it’s all a bit dour. I do hope Safran finds himself another crime to write about in the future, I’d happily read it.


Book #297 of 2013

Aussie Author Challenge

Murder In Mississippi is the 17th novel read for my Aussie Author Challenge 2013, challenging myself to read more books by male Australian authors.

LitExp Challenge




It’s also the 17th novel read for my Literary Exploration Challenge 2013, crossing off the true crime category.


One response to “Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

  1. Sounds like an interesting, albeit strange read. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Safran … On the one hand, he has a great deal of intelligence and charisma, but one the other he wastes it, using it for attention and to exploit others rather than to make any real or meaningful difference to the world.

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