The Forgotten Story of How Harper Lee Investigated an Astonishing Murder in Alabama

Author Casey Cep discusses her new book about Harper Lee's unfinished manuscript detailing the alleged crimes of an Alabama preacher and the man who shot him.
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Harper Lee before receiving the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House on November 5th, 2007, in Washington, D.C.

Harper Lee was no one-hit wonder, as the past few years have made increasingly clear. Though the author of To Kill a Mockingbird was famously reticent about her work before she died in 2016, the surprise (if controversial) publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 revealed the author had written a first draft of Mockingbird that was distinct from the finished product in many respects. Just two years later, writer Wayne Flynt published a portion of the author's lively, prolific correspondence in Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship With Harper Lee.

Now, in Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, author Casey Cep is spotlighting another fascinating but forgotten project: Lee's unfinished true-crime book about the murder, during a church service, of an Alabama reverend who was also a suspected serial killer and insurance fraudster.

To report The Reverend, as Lee called her manuscript, the then-52-year-old author traveled to Alexander City, Alabama, where she rented a house, interviewed acquaintances of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, secured court documents, and struck up a friendship with a charismatic lawyer, Tom Radney, who had once defended Maxwell and later represented his killer. She drew some of her reporting techniques from her work with friend Truman Capote on his true-crime opus In Cold Blood, but also sought a higher standard of accuracy than Capote had settled for, and ultimately grew frustrated with the preponderance of hearsay and rumor in Alexander City. After years of working on the book, she seemingly abandoned The Reverend—though there are some who still believe that, as with Go Set a Watchman, there is a hidden copy of the final text stashed somewhere.

In Furious Hours, Cep interrogates these rumors, visiting Alexander City and reviewing Radney's own materials on the Maxwell case and his correspondence with Lee. The resulting book is divided into separate portraits of these three characters—Maxwell, Radney, and Lee—and draws parallels between the towering ambitions of each, how they failed to live up to them, and how they ultimately tantalized and stumped the public in the process, leaving behind various myths in their wake.

Before the book's publication, Pacific Standard spoke with Cep about Lee's writer's block, the things we can learn from literary failure, and the Monroeville, Alabama-born author's "cosmopolitan, intellectual" life, frequently spent writing (if not always publishing) in New York.

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How did this book get started for you?

This book grew out of some reporting that I did in 2015 for The New Yorker about Go Set a Watchman [following] the absolutely insane announcement that, after 50 years, Harper Lee was going to be publishing a new book. I went down to Monroeville, where she was living in an assisted-living facility, and while I was down there I found out about this other book that she had supposedly written and got very interested. Like a lot of people, I knew about her work with Capote in Kansas, but had not really heard anything about this other project she had undertaken in Alabama.

I wrote a short article about the Maxwell case for The New Yorker, but during the course of reporting, and even once it went up on the Web, I heard from more people who'd met [Lee] when she was in town, or who knew something about the original story. In this case, it just seemed like the characters were so rich and there was so many different kinds of writing and research for me that it felt like it wanted to be a book as opposed to a long article.

Casey Cep.

Casey Cep.

Did you have any interaction with Harper Lee's estate during the writing of the book, and if so, how did that go?

She was alive when I started writing this book [but] I never got to interview her; I interviewed a lot of friends, family, and people who knew her quite well over the years. When she died in 2016, there was another wave of people who had respected her privacy her whole life, but understood the omertà of Harper Lee ended when she died. She had been pretty explicit with some of them: She would say things in her letters about "when the dust settles," by which she meant when she died, they were free to do what they wanted.

The book ends with this curious moment we're in: I learned as much as I could in researching this book on her case, but there's still the potential in her papers for there to be either research notes or draft materials. Some people think—through intuition, divination, or [because] she told them—that there's a whole manuscript. I think very soon the contents of that archive will be made public, or will be at least made available to an official biographer, so there will be clarity. But as it is, it's this moment of speculation.

Harper Lee said that she ended up not writing a non-fiction story because she ran into difficulties reporting. What were the challenges that you encountered while writing this story, and did you find them at all paralyzing in the way she did?

She had some particular reporting difficulties that I obviously didn't face. I am not Harper Lee, I am a run-of-the-mill reporter asking questions about the case or about her, so obviously those [challenges] are quite distinct. She talked about some things that are comical, like people who knew who she was, and so some of the resistance she encountered was people who were overly enthusiastic—they wanted to tell her what she wanted to hear so they would be in the book, or they wanted money to cooperate because they knew that probably there would be a movie.

More than that, in Harper Lee's case, there were people alive at the time she was working on the case who were rumored to be involved in some of the insurance fraud, so those individuals are maybe not unwilling to talk to you, but what they're willing to share is either not truthful or misleading. This is not something I faced, but there was a very active debate at the time of Reverend Maxwell's murder about whether or not he had been a practitioner of voodoo: That's obviously the kind of thing that's very hard to disprove and was probably frustrating to [Lee], too, [judging] from letters she wrote about working on this case, trying to figure out whether there was any truth to that. And then on top of that, something I get into in the book in general were her struggles with writer's block, drinking and depression, and the confounding of those things around this one project.

I riff on this a little bit in the book, but obviously true crime is one of these genres where there's real disagreement between speculation and the facts of the matter. Harper Lee's troubles were exacerbated by the fact that she came into this project with such a high standard for accuracy, and these really strident opinions about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. That was one of the things that I really liked about getting to include her as a character: Rather than pretend these aren't ongoing, interesting questions or actively debated concerns, I could use her struggle to talk about the different expectations readers bring to true crime and the evolving standards around telling these sorts of stories.

In many ways, you're telling the story of a literary failure, instead of tracing the usual narrative of how a writer created a literary success. Why is it important that readers encounter messier stories like these, instead of simpler, triumphal stories about genius?

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.

At different points when I was writing, I was hoping it would be a story of triumph; for a long time in the reporting process, I thought there was likely a manuscript, and it was just a question of where it was and what condition it was in. To your point that it's important to think of failure as well as success, I certainly think that Harper Lee is a genius and I don't think that's negated by her struggles with writing. Looking at a story like Harper Lee's, the reason it's so moving is that it does force us to look at this porous boundary between success and failure. In general, these kinds of stories are often given the fairytale ending, or they're seamed up and turned into moralizing or satisfying stories, and I just feel like a thing that all three of these stories [Maxwell's, Radney's, and Lee's] have in common is a kind of raggedness and unfinishedness. Although in [Lee's] case, even if there was not a prolific public output, there was this contented, solitary life of the mind.

One of the things that was satisfying for me, even though I couldn't find 10 other novels she had written: It does seem to me like she was an intellectual and she lived a life of the mind, which, by her own terms, is kind of the most successful life you can live.

What do you think Harper Lee would think about the state of true crime today?

I think at some base level she would just be a consumer and a watcher and a reader. One of the things that's delighted me about her interest in this case in Alex City is that it was not aberrant: She had spent her whole life reading Sherlock Holmes and detective mysteries and she loved just watching court trials at the local courthouse the way most of us would watch a movie. It was part of her dynamic with her sisters too: They were just true-crime nuts, apparently they talked about it with one another, and they followed this stuff and read it and loved it. So I think whatever her kind of ethical or aesthetic judgments, it's very clear to me that—had she ever used a computer like this—she'd be watching Netflix and downloading Serial; it's truly what she liked to read and think about it.

Now, do I think she would she be a kind of moralizer? I don't know. She really just didn't weigh in on the issues of her day, so it's not as if I think she would be writing angry New York Times op-eds. [Still,] I don't think that she would have been a neutral consumer of what's alive and well in true crime these days: She did not abandon that sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction, and she was dismissive and judgmental of "pseudo-journalistic practices." I think for her, novels and true crime were two very different loves, and the boundary between them was not porous.

Did writing this book change the way that you think about Truman Capote?

A ton. I had always admired his writing in an aesthetic way, but I certainly share some of [Lee's] ethical concerns. On the other side of it, I find his life more tragic than I ever knew. That's true of his childhood: His family of origin was really complicated; Harper Lee had this stable home life and loving siblings, and her father was one of the most upstanding men in the community, but we don't know the precarity that brought Capote to Monroeville. What I learned about Capote is that, for all the work he produced—and he produced some extraordinary work—it came at such a steep price.

The letters that I found at Yale [University] that Harper Lee had written to Capote's fact-checker at The New Yorker, those letters tell a kind of journalistic story and they document [Lee's] feelings about true crime, but they also tell a story about friendship. It's very clear how tenderly she felt toward him and how saddened she was by the gulf in their friendship and ultimately how heartbroken she was by his self-destructive impulses. That was true of some other letters, too, where she is upset by the fictions he tells about his life and other people and the hurt and harm he brought to people who truly loved him. His life was difficult and tragic, and he had the same influence on people very close to him—I think Harper Lee is one example of that.

What should readers take away from your story about Harper Lee that we maybe didn't know before?

I think that a lot of people have this sense of her as a small-town recluse, and I hope that they come away from the book realizing that she was this cosmopolitan intellectual. She lived most of her adult life in Manhattan, and she went to the Frick and went to the Met and, far from her small-town roots, she signed her letters, "with a word that eluded Tolstoy, love Nell"—this is a woman who's reading the Russians and just going about the world in a deeper and more global way than folks maybe know.

A lot of people read Mockingbird in school, so they have this sense of Harper Lee writing one book, and it's a book about childhood. I hope that they meet her in Alex City [as she's reporting The Reverend] and they realize the breadth of her ambition and the sophistication of her literary views and the appetite she had for telling stories and getting to know people in the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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