On the Beat with Harper Lee

Drawing of Harper Lee
Harper Lee; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

How do you write the history of a book that was never written, by an author who, if not exactly a recluse, was more determined than most not to publicize her life or writing process? And how do you make that mystery worth reading when its conclusion is widely known? These questions loom in Casey Cep’s remarkable, thoroughly researched Furious Hours, an account of the true-crime book that Harper Lee intended to write but ultimately abandoned more than two decades after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird had made her a household name.

The story at the center of Furious Hours is a grisly one, of the kind that now populates podcasts and procedurals. In Nixburg, Alabama, in the 1970s, friends and family of the charming African-American reverend Willie Maxwell kept dying in scenes set up to look like car accidents, and he kept collecting on the life insurance policies that he had taken out on the victims. Two of the reverend’s wives, a neighbor, a brother, and an adopted daughter all ended up dead under suspicious circumstances, but to the frustration of the local police department and the insurance companies’ lawyers, there never seemed to be enough evidence to convict him of the crimes the entire community suspected him of having committed.

Rumors of secret voodoo practices that Maxwell engaged in began to spread as fear of his deeds took hold. He was said to have “hung white chickens upside down from the pecan trees outside his house to keep away unwanted spirits, and painted blood on his doorsteps to keep away the authorities,” Cep writes. “Supernatural explanations flourish where law and order fails, which is why, as time passed and more people died, the stories about the Reverend grew stronger, stranger, and, if possible, more sinister.” His alleged crime spree ended decisively at the funeral of his last supposed victim, his adopted daughter, Shirley Ann Ellington. At her memorial service, with the whole chapel watching, a black army veteran named Robert Burns shot the reverend three times in the head, killing him.

We first get a glimpse of Harper Lee in Cep’s prologue, taking notes in the stands among the other courtroom reporters at Burns’s trial for murder. By that time, seventeen years had passed since she published To Kill a Mockingbird, and it had been twelve years since the publication of her childhood friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the “nonfiction novel” about the 1959 murder of the Clutter family on their farm in Kansas, which she had helped him to research. Lee, wealthy enough from her book earnings to make complaining about taxes central to her casual conversations but still living in a modest apartment in Manhattan, had been stymied in her attempts to write a follow-up to her wildly successful debut. At…

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