When John Safran heard that Richard Barrett had been murdered, he was shocked but not entirely surprised. Barrett was one of Mississippi's leading white supremacists and he'd been stabbed to death by a black man - a reversal of the traditional Mississippi story.
But over the next few days, that story became more complicated. It was suggested that Barrett had owed his murderer money, and then, most intriguingly, that he had propositioned him. A gay white supremacist? Who made a pass at a black man?
Safran knew Barrett. He had played a prank on him for his TV documentary Race Relations, but Barrett (a lawyer) threatened legal action, and the segment was cut. Still, there had been something odd about Barrett. He was a fantasist, a sort of prankster himself - how could things have gone so badly wrong?
And so Safran went to Mississippi to cover the trial, and started talking to people. And they talked to him: the cops, the racists, the neighbours, the lawyers, the families, and, finally, the murderer himself.
What emerges is not a whodunit, but a why-dunit, in which to understand what happened, you need to try to understand the history of the state, and a state of mind. And Safran is, characteristically, not afraid to turn his questions on himself. Why is he so interested in the story? What are the rules about writing the book? And what do you say when the killer threatens your life, or asks you to do some shopping at Walmart for him?
John Safran has written a work of non-fiction as groundbreaking as any of his acclaimed TV shows. Murder in Mississippi is a compelling, funny, confronting, sometimes uncomfortable but always revealing portrait of race, murder, and the process of writing a true crime book.