Photo: Suzanne Van Atten
Photo: Suzanne Van Atten

Murder, fraud and writer’s block

‘Furious Hours’ tells the story Harper Lee couldn’t

Seventeen years after “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, Harper Lee began work in earnest on her next book.

It was to be a nonfiction account about the murder of the Rev. Willie Maxwell, a rumored practitioner of voodoo, and the mysterious deaths and suspected insurance scams that surrounded him before his demise.

While attending the trial for Maxwell’s killer in Alexander City, Alabama, Lee developed relationships with key players the same way she did as “assistant researchist” to Truman Capote when they worked together on “In Cold Blood.” Tom Radney, the attorney who successfully litigated an insanity plea for Maxwell’s killer, was so eager to be of assistance, he gave Lee a briefcase stuffed with documents related to the case.

But the book would never materialize. Why and when it was abandoned is unclear. The only other thing of note Lee would publish was “Go Set a Watchman” in 2015, which was written before “Mockingbird.” Rejected by publishers upon completion, it was generally panned by critics upon publication. Lee died seven months later at age 89.

While covering the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” for The New Yorker, Casey Cep, a former Rhodes scholar with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, learned about Lee’s aborted book, titled “The Reverend.” In her deeply reported and thoroughly engaging debut, “Furious Hours,” Cep tells the story Lee failed to deliver and, in the process, explores why the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of one of the country’s most beloved books may have been stymied.

“Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee” by Casey Cep. CONTRIBUTED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Photo: For the AJC

Prologue aside, Lee doesn’t appear in “Furious Hours” until Page 149. The first section is devoted to the good reverend, about whom Lee wrote: “He might not have believed what he preached, he might not have believed in voodoo, but he had a profound and abiding belief in insurance.”

Within the span of a few years beginning in 1970, six people close to Maxwell died under mysterious circumstances, including two wives, a brother, a nephew and a 16-year-old stepdaughter. It just so happened, Maxwell had multiple life insurance policies on all of the deceased. Many citizens of Alexander City suspected Maxwell of murder, including local law enforcement, but there was never enough evidence to charge him. Therefore, he collected handsomely on most of his insurance policies, thanks to the diligence of Radney, his attorney, who got a percentage of Maxwell’s payouts.

The residents of Alexander City grew increasingly afraid of Maxwell as the number of deaths in his orbit began to mount. Rumors that the preacher practiced voodoo were rampant, and frustration over the authorities’ failure to arrest him escalated. Meanwhile, those who were related to Maxwell feared they might be next.

During the funeral for Maxwell’s stepdaughter, her bereaved uncle Robert Burns pulled out a gun and fired three shots, killing the preacher in front of 300 mourners. In a strange twist, in an already strange story, Radney, Maxwell’s lawyer, successfully defended Burns against murder charges by putting Maxwell’s suspicious activities — the very activities Radney facilitated and benefited from — on trial.

Cep paints a vivid picture of the political and social makeup of a small Southern town, where family trees and the organizational charts of local institutions intersect often; where memories are long; and where the collective conscience of a community sometimes carries more weight than the law.

Plucking peculiar details from the past to spark her descriptions of historical events, Cep manages to enliven the driest topics. For the origins of the insurance industry, she starts in “a bakery on Pudding Lane,” which ignites into the Great Fire of London, and introduces Damned Barebone, a pioneer of homeowners insurance who employed firefighters to protect only the homes belonging to his clients.

Author Casey Cep
Photo: For the AJC

Cep’s last and longest section is a straightforward biography of Lee that chronicles her Alabama childhood, her friendship with Capote, her spartan life in New York City and her experience writing “Mockingbird,” which began when a friend gave her a year’s salary for Christmas so she could afford to write full time. Cep details the two years Lee spent painstakingly revising her manuscript under the close and patient scrutiny of editor Tay Hohoff, and how lovingly agents Maurice Crain and Annie Laurie Williams nurtured her during the process.

Then came the explosive success — the awards, the film, more awards, the requests for interviews, photographs and speeches.

In Cep’s telling, Lee spent the next 17 years after “Mockingbird” plagued by anxieties. She abhorred the spotlight or any conversation related to writing, and she felt immense pressure to produce a second book. Inexplicably, she fretted over her mounting tax bills, despite the fact she was sufficiently flush to pay them, and she was constantly worried about her father’s failing health. Lee, who had always been an enthusiastic smoker and drinker, began to drink heavily, which turned her mean. By the time she started work on “The Reverend,” so much time had passed that her agents and editor had died or retired, her publisher had folded, and Capote was in severe decline. Lee had lost her literary support team.

It wasn’t until Lee gave up on “The Reverend,” Cep suggests, that the author settled more peacefully into her old age, continuing always to write, but content to contain her words and thoughts to letters, which she wrote often and at length to friends and fans alike until her stroke in 2007.

The story of the Rev. Willie Maxwell is a doozy. It’s a shame Lee wasn’t able to tell it. Cep does it justice, but the real revelation in “Furious Hours” is the extent to which Lee’s literary community contributed to the success of “Mockingbird,” and the anguish she endured following its success.

NONFICTION

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

by Casey Cep

Alfred A. Knopf

276 pages, $35.95

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