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On the Beat with Harper Lee

Harper Lee

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 a party on the Upper West Side on the night before the opening of the 1976 Democratic Convention, she met Tom Radney, a white Yellow Dog Democrat who had served as Maxwell’s lawyer and who, in an odd turnabout, went on to serve as Burns’s lawyer after he killed Maxwell. The year after their meeting, Radney wrote Lee about Maxwell and his violent death, and Lee, intrigued, headed to Alabama to see the trial herself.

Part of what drew Lee to the Maxwell story, Cep suggests, was a kind of rivalry with Capote. Though Capote downplayed Lee’s work on In Cold Blood, referring to her as his “assistant researchist,” her notes provided many of the book’s details. Her presence also seems to have helped Capote gain the trust of the Kansans he was hoping to talk to, smoothing the way for him to conduct his interviews. Lee, whose father was a lawyer and newspaper publisher, had come close to completing a law degree before dropping out to move to New York City; she was already well equipped with reportorial instincts. Her notes included analyses of legal strategies, assessments of the jurors, and the kind of tidbits that later added color to the story, like “the height of Mrs. Clutter’s socks and the length of Nancy Clutter’s mirror.” But her thoroughness in recording factual minutiae seemed to run against Capote’s own journalistic tendencies, which included a much looser definition of “nonfiction.”

After the publication of In Cold Blood, sources close to the Clutter case doubted the trustworthiness of Capote’s reporting. Writers from both The Kansas City Times and Esquire attempted to re-report his story and found a number of inconsistencies. The most serious one was Capote’s suggestion that the murders were not premeditated, and that the killers later felt remorse. Though Capote claims that one of the killers, Perry Smith, gave an apology from the gallows, no one present at the execution could confirm his statement of contrition. The concluding cemetery scene between Special Agent Alvin Dewey and Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Susan Kidwell, was one Capote appeared to have mostly made up.

Cep suggests that though Lee was publicly supportive of In Cold Blood, she was disturbed by the fabrications that Capote had included in his book, and their differences on the matter coincided with, and perhaps contributed to, a permanent rift in their friendship. In a letter to Sandy Campbell, Capote’s fact-checker at The New Yorker, Lee wrote, “Truman’s having long ago put fact out of business had made me despair of ‘factual’ accounts of anything.” The Maxwell case offered Lee a chance to write a book on the model of In Cold Blood but without the Capote-esque embellishments. She would use her legal prowess and shoe-leather reporting to pay tribute to the newspapermen she admired. So in 1977 Lee set off to Alexander City and installed herself in the Horseshoe Bend Motel to dig up what she could on the enigmatic preacher and his victims.

If you came to Furious Hours for a tell-all about Lee, prepare to be disappointed. Cep doesn’t plunge into the author’s life until two thirds of the way through the book, and for good reason. The dragons at the gates of Harper Lee have hardly lost any of their ferocity since her death. No short stories or scraps of unknown later novels have been exhumed from her archives, and we know very little further information about her.

Even a reporter as meticulous as Cep can only do so much to pry loose facts that haven’t been widely circulated without crossing the litigious guardians of Lee’s estate. The Lee in her pages is the liveliest portrait we’re likely to get, barring the discovery of a memoir among her effects. Equal parts cantankerous and charming, she kept up a friendship with Gregory Peck for decades, became fond of a morning martini, loved British history, and enforced a strict no-talking-about-writing rule with her friends and family. Cep doesn’t delve much into the controversy over Lee’s mental health in her last years when she agreed to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the manuscript that she had turned into the J.B. Lippincott Company in 1957, and that her editor had rejected in favor of the potential project that would turn into Mockingbird, nor does she attempt to speculate on the potential literary assets of Lee’s sealed estate.

Consequently, the center of Furious Hours is an absence of information, and the great, acrobatic trick Cep accomplishes is to deliver a book so richly detailed and full of thoughtfully condensed research without having access to any of its three main subjects: Willie Maxwell, Tom Radney, and Lee. Lack of information is a problem for both Lee’s story and the reverend’s. In Lee’s case, it’s a problem of tight-lipped, reluctant sources. In Maxwell’s, there’s a racial component at work. Even though the murders were sensational, it’s still the case that Maxwell was a black man in midcentury Alabama, and his victims were also black, meaning that accounts of their lives are difficult to find. As Cep notes, “History isn’t what happened but what gets written down, and the various sources that make up the archival record generally overlooked the lives of poor black southerners.” How Maxwell may have killed the people around him is still unclear. There are poisons that the coroners did not yet have tests for that he possibly administered, and perhaps there was an accomplice or two, such as the woman who would become the third Mrs. Maxwell, the only one of his wives not to predecease him. But after Maxwell’s death, the authorities seemed to think no further digging was warranted.

So it is all the more impressive that the passages about Maxwell’s victims are as vivid as they are, given that most of what Cep had to work with was police reports and local newspaper articles, as well as interviews with people still living who had knowledge of the case, like one of the coroners who investigated the second Mrs. Maxwell’s death. Her chapter on Mary Lou Maxwell, the reverend’s first wife and first alleged victim, begins with her shelling peas on a summer evening,

after the summer storms had battered the bird nests and wildflowers, when the cicadas were loud in the trees and the ticks were wild in the grass…. Women and children pressed their thumbs against the pods, popping the creases and sending peas pinging into a colander.

Cep has a knack for a chapter-ending cliffhanger and building a sort of eerie tension. In her hands, a detail like the reverend’s ability to clean up quickly from his job powdering rocks becomes a looming clue: “At the quarry as elsewhere, he excelled at erasing the evidence of what he had done.” On the spread of the man-made lake near the site of Maxwell’s string of supposed murders, Cep opens a chapter with this knockout observation: “Water, like violence, is difficult to contain.”

Though her prose is sometimes weighed down by groaners—on Lee complaining about her new tax bracket, Cep remarks, “It was, you might say, rich”; and on the execution date for the men accused of the In Cold Blood murders, she notes, “It was, in the most terrible and literal way, a deadline”—it is more often dexterous and animated. At her best, Cep manages the feat that all great nonfiction aspires to: combining the clean precision of fact with the urgency of gossip.

Furious Hours is split into three sections, with the first dedicated to the reverend, the second to his lawyer, Radney, and the third to Lee. This structure makes it possible for Cep to do the best with what information she has, but it does occasionally feel disjointed. Though Radney, better known around Alabama as Big Tom, is a complex figure—a “walking Rolodex of bias and conflict” in Tallapoosa County and a Kennedy man when his fellow Alabamians were backing George Wallace for president—his section is the weakest of the three. Radney made it a point to work with minority clients, and his involvement with Maxwell offered an opportunity to legally challenge racial discrimination in the insurance industry. So he filed suits in order to force insurance companies to pay out the policies Maxwell had taken on the people who kept dying around him. Radney even roped in civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who had represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., to assist him in his crusade to get Maxwell’s money. Though it is true that racial bias was a serious concern in the insurance industry, Maxwell did not make for much of a hero. Radney seems to have taken on the defense of the man who had killed his previous client in front of dozens of witnesses mostly for the challenge. On Radney’s advice, Burns pled not guilty to the murder by reason of insanity. The jury acquitted him.

Radney’s section serves to illustrate the complexities around the racial politics at work in Alabama in the late 1970s, just over a decade after the sit-ins and church bombings that marked the state as a battleground in the civil rights movement. Part of what attracted Lee to the case was the muddied alliances of the figures involved. This was a political story that was much less clear-cut than the one in To Kill a Mockingbird:

An alleged black serial killer who was also the victim of violence; a crusading white attorney who was also profiting off black death; crimes that looked like murder but were mostly tried as fraud; white and black lives that existed almost side by side in a small southern town but were worlds apart.

In her original conception of the book that became Mockingbird, Lee had wanted to tell a more nuanced story of southern racism, about the white Alabamians who simultaneously abhorred the KKK and opposed integration of any kind. Here was another chance for her to write about the contradictory views of the southerners she knew, and the layers of history at work in a trial of a black man who had shot another black man. It’s not clear that if she had published The Reverend, her perspective would have been as widely celebrated by her audience as the message of tolerance at the center of Mockingbird. After she started declining interviews, Lee let her book speak for her on almost everything, including the civil rights movement. “Lee’s real views were more complicated than any editor wanted to put in print,” Cep writes.

Furious Hours leaves questions like the one of Lee’s political views dangling among its many other mysteries. But what Cep doesn’t provide in answers, she makes up for in absorbing detours, like a navigator who knows where all the best roadside Americana is hidden. She discusses the spike in popularity of life insurance policies after the Civil War, the roots of true-crime writing in salacious pamphlet accounts of homicide trials, the stigmatization of voodoo practices in America, and a heated Alabama state senate race. The triumph of Furious Hours isn’t that Cep has solved either the puzzle of what happened to Lee’s book or the mechanics of Maxwell’s killings, but that she manages, in retracing Lee’s steps, to set herself many of the same reporting challenges Lee faced, exacerbated by the passing of a few decades, and still seems to clear many of those hurdles.

But then Cep encounters difficulties. There is no book. No matter Lee’s grand intentions, no matter the $5,000 she spent on a court transcript and the days she spent holed up in the Horseshoe Bend Motel, no matter how much she had mentioned the subject to her sources and friends, she never wrote The Reverend, so far as anyone can tell. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that she never wrote it in a way that we can read it. By every account of the people close to her, Lee didn’t exactly stop writing. She was, for example, a prolific writer of spirited, amusing letters to her friends and, according to her sister Alice, always was writing something or other. Rather, Lee just stopped publishing, and may even have had a tendency to destroy her own work in frustration.

As Cep sums up, “Lee…was so elusive that even her mysteries have mysteries: not only what she wrote, but how; not only when she stopped, but why.” She spent years at her sister Louise’s house in Eufalua slowly working on the manuscript. She wrote one friend a letter that she had gotten two thirds of the way through writing the book before giving up. One Alexander City resident claimed, somewhat implausibly, to have seen the book’s cover. After his death, Radney’s family found in his possession one typed page of what seems to be Lee’s novelization of the story. But that’s all that’s left: scraps, rumors, and piles of research unassembled into any final product, now locked in Lee’s estate.

Plenty of works-in-progress end up discarded or forgotten in desk drawers, but there is something particularly poignant about Lee’s true-crime book that never was. “Unfinishedness is an emotional category as much as a chronological and aesthetic one,” Cep writes, and perhaps that is why the ending chapters of Furious Hours feel so charged, as Cep grapples with a series of murders without a clear methodology behind them, reporting notes scattered like unstrung beads, and a writer who never produced the work that her fans had so long awaited. There is no singular period, only a series of unsatisfying ellipses.

Here Cep turns more explicitly to a meditation on unfinished work, and the particular tragedy of unfulfilled potential. “Unfinishedness, like love and loss, comes in degrees,” she writes.

Something can be more unfinished or less: it can be a third of the way done or halfway done, but also halfway done for two years or halfway done for twenty. In a strange inversion, the closer to done a book is, the more unfinished, in this sense, it feels…. That is why, of all of Lee’s unfinished works, none feels as unfinished as The Reverend.

Lee had her struggles. Which one of them—alcohol, perfectionism, likely depression, loneliness, self-doubt, the crushing expectations to produce a follow-up to a novel that still sells millions of copies a year—kept her from publishing again is yet another mystery to add to the pile.

What we know is that at some point, probably not on a clear date so much as during a slow ebbing of weeks and months, Lee stopped trying to write The Reverend. But for a single letter to the editor of The New Yorker in April 2006 correcting some elements of the film Capote and another to O magazine about her love of books, she didn’t publish a word for decades. After a stroke in 2007, Lee moved permanently back to Monroeville. There she maintained her public silence until 2015, when, in a surprise announcement, HarperCollins revealed the publication of Go Set a Watchman. In the flutter of publicity that followed, Lee never addressed whether any newer work might also be published, despite her many readers’ hopes that the time for The Reverend had at last arrived. She died in her sleep a year later.