John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi is to true crime what “The Daily Show” is to nightly news. There’s much more mirth than you might expect given the grave matter, and it sublimely unearths some buried truths.
How does that work exactly, I ask Safran—that I’m laughing at your true crime murder book?
“I’m very pro-laughing. I haven’t quite worked it out—I want someone who’s into the field to kind of just work it out. I doubt you were laughing maliciously, but I’m sure you were laughing at something like the craziness of the world, or because if we don’t laugh we cry. I think it’s a good thing, when the world’s so harsh,” Safran says.
Safran is known in his native Australia as a comedian specializing in documentary ambush. In a single episode of John Safran’s Race Relations, Safran, who’s Jewish, sings “If I Were a Rich Man” into the placid face of a Hamas higher-up—and again, live on Palestinian radio—before adjourning to Amsterdam to make out with a shiksa in the Anne Frank House.
“I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie—like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space,” he writes.
It was for Race Relations that Safran first went to Mississippi: to prank well-known white supremacist Richard Barrett by publicly announcing that DNA testing proves he descended from Africans. (According to National Geographic, we all did.) Barrett, a lawyer, threatened to sue, and the footage was never used. One year later, he was dead.
“Richard Barrett has been found, stabbed to death, in his burning house. A twenty-two-year-old, Vincent McGee, has confessed to the murder. Members of the McGee family have been arrested as accessories after the fact,” Safran writes. “...I don’t notice I’m biting the inside of my cheek until it starts to sting.”
As Safran refreshes the news webpage, the story swells to the point of irresistibility: McGee tells police Barrett owed him wages. “Now the murder’s about money as well as race.” He claims Barrett made a pass at him. “So now the murder’s about race, money, and sex.”
Safran hops the next plane to Mississippi to start work on a true crime book. Thing is, he’d never written a true crime book. Or any book. “Just say you’re going to be a surgeon, but you didn’t have the money to go to school. You’re just kind of feeling around and reading books figuring out how to operate—that’s kind of what I’d done with it,” he says.
He’d read In Cold Blood, and crammed Berendt, McGuinness, Malcolm on McGuinness—any true crime he could get his hands on. “I feel I like soaked up the blueprints of them. ‘Ah, you do that, and then you do that.’ So in my mind, I was like, ‘Okay, what would I experience in Mississippi?’ and kind of stick it into that blueprint. It was really as literal as that,” he says.
Things quickly went awry. “I wanted the narrative to be me and the brave McGee family against ‘the system.’ I wanted to be hanging with the black activist lawyers, but they’ve cut me off. Worse, I got on smashingly with Jim, the white supremacist,” Safran writes. Facts proved slippery (on the day of the murder, did Barrett arrive on a bicycle or in an SUV?), and the only way Safran could get McGee to talk to him, by phone, from jail, was by paying him in Wal-Mart Green Dot cards.
“I kept trying to dodge around the fact that I paid Vincent Wal-Mart Green Dot cards. This ruins the book, because it’s not pure,” he says. “I ended up writing it without, and it didn’t ring true. There seemed to be some missing piece of the puzzle. Once I stated that I had to give Vincent Green Dot cards, not only did the book start making sense, it started revealing things about both Vincent and me...the more things suddenly make sense in the text.”
“...I’m gonna need you to do somethin’ for me, you hear? I need some G-Dot cards, you hear? I got some big business coming through, you hear? Gonna need twenty-five hundred. And get it in single one-hundreds, you hear?”
“I can’t give you twenty-five hundred dollars. I don’t have much money left,” I say. “You’re going to have to figure out another plan.”
“No,” he says. “You the plan.”
I laugh. “You’re going to need another plan.”
“Uh-uh,” he says. “No. Uh-uh.”
“No, uh-uh,” I mimic back.
“Say, John Safran?” he says.
“I can get you killed from right behind this door, man. Real talk.”
“You can get me killed from behind your door?”
“Real talk,” he says.
Chilling, thrilling, discomfiting, comic—true crime. For Safran’s entirely unique approach to a time-worn genre, God’ll Cut You Down (published as Murder in Mississippi in the UK) won the 2014 Australian Crime Writers’ Association’s Ned Kelly Award for best true crime book.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.