Posts Tagged ‘true crime’

Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.



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One of my friends calls it “the best reality show going on.” Another says, “There’s too much sadness in the world already.” Both are talking about the trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her two-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony three years ago this month.

The Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando has become a tourist destination and media circus. The police broke up a brawl before dawn yesterday among those waiting in line — some overnight — for the 50 courtroom seats designated for the public.

I have avoided downtown the last few weeks, but there’s no escape. Local television stations are providing gavel-to-gavel coverage and instant analysis on air and on their web sites; reporters tweet from the courtroom while cable anchors offer updates at least every 30 minutes. NBC’s “Dateline” aired special coverage last night, and ABC’s “The View” weighs in next week. You can’t go shopping or to the post office or out to lunch without hearing ordinary folks debating the fine points of forensics or the day’s testimony. And everybody, it seems, has an opinion about “tot mom” Casey Anthony’s guilt or innocence, all of course, in the interest of “justice for Caylee.”

It’s appalling and fascinating and mind-numbing all at the same time. And I was feeling cynical about the whole lurid mess until I read a beautiful and haunting first novel about a missing persons case in North Carolina, You Believers by Jane Bradley.

I hadn’t planned on reading it because I figured it would be a downer, and I’m in a summer brain-candy mood most days. But I was immediately pulled in by the voice of Shelby Walters, a Tennessee mountain native relocated to Wilmington, N.C., where she runs a volunteer rescue service.

“I’d say my calling is saving lives, lives of the missing and the lives of those who get left behind,” Shelby tells readers. “I’ve led those gatherings of searchers through fields, armed against the snakes that wait in weeds, the alligators lurking in marshes, where somewhere in miles of fields and woods and rivers and lakes a body can be found.”

I’d have been happy to hear Shelby, so passionate and persistent, narrate the entire book, but Bradley artfully intersperses her version of the search for pretty bartender Katy with chapters told from the perspective of others involved. There’s Katy’s mother, Livy, who leaves her Lookout Mountain home and puts her life on hold to look for her daughter; Billy, Katy’s fiance who knows he is Katy’s “safe” choice; and even Katy herself, near book’s beginning, at the shopping center in her blue pick-up. Two young men also play pivotal roles: hapless Mike, a born follower who wishes he was the boy his granny believed he was “instead of the man he’d come to be,” and cruel charmer Jesse, who sometimes feels as if he has hell pent up inside him. “They told him love could save him, but they had lied.”

Love, lies, grief, fear, guilt, grace. Shelby muses on the sorrowful trails she follows, wondering if there is evil in the shadows, or is it just random violence? And how then do you make peace with a world that can lose a Katy? Or any living soul? She’ll keep searching for answers — and the missing.

Open Book: I downloaded the e-book version of Jane Bradley’s You Believers (Unbridled Press) to my nook. I’ve been following the Caylee Anthony story for three years, and I know several print and TV reporters covering the trial. I also remember George Anthony, Casey’s father, from when he worked as a security guard at the Orlando Sentinel some years ago.

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The empty swing on the cover of Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America provides an arresting image of a lost child, but what I’ll always remember is the photo of the grinning, freckled six-year-old in a red baseball cap.

 Still, Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a Hollywood, Fla. shopping mall on July 27, 1981, didn’t become the country’s most famous missing boy overnight.

Because this was before Amber Alerts and milk cartons, before America’s Most Wanted and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It was just two distraught parents, John and Reve Walsh, looking for their son with the well-meaning help of family, friends and law enforcement departments at a loss without centralized communication.

Two weeks after Adam disappeared, fishermen found his decapitated head in a canal more than a 100 miles away. By then, the case had captured public attention. But the kidnapper/killer was never officially captured, and the rest of Adam’s remains have never been found.

A serial killer named Otis Toole eventually confessed to the murder,  but he confessed to a lot of murders, and he recanted more often than not. He died in a Florida jail in 1996 without detectives having verified his stories. It wasn’t until  December 2008 that the Hollywood police department announced that it had concluded that Toole was indeed the killer and it had made mistakes in the investigation.

In Bringing Adam Home, noted Florida writer Les Standiford and Joe Matthews, a retired Miami Beach detective and experienced polygrapher, detail those mistakes in devastating detail, such as lost bloodstained evidence crucial for DNA testing and valuable time wasted on less promising suspects. Matthews was hired by the Walshes to conduct an independent investigation to determine that Toole was the killer, and he spent frustrating years retracing leads, interviewing witnesses and verifying Toole’s whereabouts in order to do so.

Intertwined with this true-crime chronicle (Toole was one sorry career crook) is the important story of how Adam’s abduction turned his parents into powerful advocates for crime victims and how law enforcement across the country changed its response to missing children cases. Now, there are toll-free numbers, national databases, registries of pedophiles, fingerprinting programs, trained search-and-rescue teams.

Over the years, John Walsh kept Adam’s case in the spotlight, “not knowing {the truth} was torture.” The Hollywood police said it hoped that Toole’s positive identification brought some closure to the Walsh family. The book quotes John Walsh: “It’s not about closure; it’s about justice.”

Open Book: I reviewed a digital advance copy of Bringing Adam Home by Les Standiford with Joe Matthews (HarperCollins) through NetGalley so I didn’t see the eight pages of pictures. But I remember them.

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