Stranger than fiction: Casey Cep explores Harper Lee’s foray into true crime

After learning about Harper Lee’s unpublished true crime book, Casey Cep decided to write her own work of nonfiction. Cep will read from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee at New Dominion Bookshop on May 31. Publicity image. After learning about Harper Lee’s unpublished true crime book, Casey Cep decided to write her own work of nonfiction. Cep will read from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee at New Dominion Bookshop on May 31. Publicity image.

When word came out in early 2015 that Harper Lee was set to publish a sequel to the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, author Casey Cep was one of a number of reporters who traveled to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, to cover the book’s release. Despite Lee’s enormous popularity, Go Set a Watchman was only the second book the reticent author had published.

To her great surprise, while in Monroeville, Cep met a woman who told her about a third book that Lee had worked on—a work of true crime. Cep’s interest almost immediately shifted from covering Go Set a Watchman to investigating Lee’s unpublished true crime book.

“At some point I thought, ‘Why am I not writing this? It’s fascinating,’” says Cep.

As a reporter, Lee had spent time covering a story that took place in Alexander City, Alabama, in the late 1970s. A local man, Reverend Willie Maxwell, allegedly murdered six of his family members over a period of seven years. Locals suspected that Maxwell had killed a number of his relatives in order to collect on various life insurance policies that he had taken out naming him as beneficiary (unbeknownst to them). Although suspicions mounted against Maxwell and the evidence against him seemed damning, he was never convicted of any of the murders. This was due in large part to Maxwell hiring one of the best defense attorneys in the state—Tom Radney. It was Radney’s granddaughter, who Cep met in 2015, who told her about Lee’s work covering the Maxwell case.

In Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, out this month, Cep uses the Maxwell murders and the friendship between Radney and Lee as a framework to paint a portrait of the writer, a deeply private figure who spent much of her life outside of the limelight. “In some ways, my motivation for looking at this case has always been to learn more about her,” says Cep.

On June 18, 1977, Maxwell attended the funeral of his adopted daughter at a small chapel in Alexander City. In the middle of the service, Robert Burns, seated in the pew in front of Maxwell turned around and shot him in the head three times—killing him instantly. Burns, a blood relative of Maxwell’s suspected last victim, went to trial for murder and hired Radney—the same man who had represented Maxwell in previous years and gotten him acquitted of murder—as his lawyer.

When Lee found out about the Maxwell case, she arranged to go to Alexander City to cover the Burns trial. While there, she befriended Radney, who very much admired Lee and openly discussed the ongoing case with her.

“The truth is that, by her own account, Harper Lee was always intrigued by crime,” says Cep. “Her father was a lawyer. Her older sister was a lawyer. She spent a lot of time around that courthouse in Monroeville.”

Lee’s interest in crime was likely stimulated by her friendship with Truman Capote. When Capote traveled to Kansas in the early 1960s to gather information about the quadruple murder of a family for his acclaimed book, In Cold Blood, Lee went along to help research the case.

“I think the friendship between Lee and Capote is one of the most interesting relationships in the book,” says Cep.

Despite their camaraderie, Lee was dissatisfied with the way that Capote presented the research when he published In Cold Blood. When she went to Alexander City to cover the Maxwell case, she was determined to write a true crime novel that was different than the one Capote had produced. The book that Lee was working on was to be called The Reverend. Yet, in spite of the time she spent researching the story—chatting with journalists who had covered the Maxwell case, gathering letters and court reports, talking with Radney—she never published anything.

“There is a camp of people who feel like the salient question isn’t ‘What did she write?’ but ‘What did she do with it?’” says Cep.

In 2017, a year after Harper Lee’s death, Cep traveled to Monroeville to meet Radney’s eldest daughter at the Lee family law firm. And that’s where they picked up a briefcase filled with notes and materials Lee had collected while researching the case—including a chapter of The Reverend.

What else, if anything, exists of Lee’s true crime book is unknown. “I wish I had the answer,” says Cep. “I jokingly say it’s mysteries on mysteries.” —Benjamen Noble

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