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Posts Tagged ‘Willie Maxwell’

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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