REVIEW: The Book Harper Lee Didn't Write: A Wild Southern Gothic Tale of a Murderous Minister

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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (Knopf)

 By Ann Fabian

On a hot June day in 1976, Robert Burns walked into a crowded Alexander City, Alabama, funeral parlor and shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell.  Three hundred people saw him fire the gun and saw the Reverend Maxwell die.  Later that afternoon, Burns confessed.  But at his trial a few months later, the jury bought his insanity defense and Burns went free. 

The murdered Reverend Maxwell had a checkered history.  Over the course of a decade, five of his family members had turned up dead.  Alexander City folks whispered rumors of his ties to dark voodoo doings.  Maxwell’s evil, it turned out, was likely of a more modern and bureaucratic sort.  The life of each of his dead kin had been insured, and every one of those life insurance policies named Maxwell as a principal beneficiary.     

Prosecutors, insurance companies, and the Alabama FBI all tried to pin the murders on Maxwell, casting him as the rare figure of an African American serial killer.  But the stories were murky and it was never clear exactly how the victims had died or who had been responsible for their deaths.  With the help of good lawyer, Maxwell stayed free and pocketed payouts from the insurance companies.   That is, until Robert Burns put a bullet in the man and put an end to his schemes.   And then Burns hired Tom Radney, the white and liberal lawyer who’d kept Maxwell out of jail through the years.   

The murders and the trials take up the first half of Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.  But they aren’t the mystery at the heart of the book.  Years before Cep headed to Alabama in 2015 to report on the excitement swirling around the publication of a new book by Harper Lee, Lee had spent a decade trying to make a book out of the story of the trial of Reverend Maxwell.  To the disappointment of the Alexander City residents who’d welcomed the writer, told her their stories or watched her work and to all those just wanting a new book by Harper Lee, Lee’s late coming book was a disappointment.  It wasn’t The Reverend, her version of the local serial killer.  It was Go Set a Watchman, the manuscript an editor and agent had helped Lee craft into To Kill a Mockingbird.  

Cep, a fiercely smart and generous writer, takes up the Maxwell story and follows it into the deeper mysteries of Harper Lee.  Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926, a year after Willie Maxwell.  We know she grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, became friends with Truman Capote, her extravagantly imaginative neighbor child.  She went to the University of Alabama, spent a couple of years in law school, dropped out and moved to New York to be a writer.  Good friends gave her enough money to quit her job working for an airline and write her first book.  With the manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird in the hands of her publishers, Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas and helped him report on the murder of a middle-class family.   

For Cep this outline is just the start of things.  What happened to Lee after she published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960?  Where did that masterpiece come from? Did its weight—its profits and prizes—send her into silence?  Where does Lee fit—in the history of Alabama, in literature, in the canon of blocked writers or on the list of writers who drank too much, in the moral imagination of twentieth-century America?  How does Lee fit on the bookshelves of middle-schoolers or on the list chroniclers of America’s history of white racism?       

Furious Hours lets us follow Cep as she looks for answers to some of these questions.  Others we’ll never answer.  Cep’s a reporter, historian, and philosopher. And a very good writer.  She has a marvelous ability to conjure worlds out of words and the patience to trace an Alabama landscape transformed by a dam, to follow a black soldier home from World War II, into his work in the mills and out onto the pulpits of country revivals.  She untangles Alabama politics in the years George Wallace governed the state and captures the literary hullabaloo around the publication of Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood.   She takes us into histories of voodoo, life insurance, murder, the insanity defense and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in Alabama.  We learn about sharecroppers, serial killers, Alabama lawyering and Harper Lee.     

Cep shares Lee’s sense that nonfiction stories need to be built from facts.  She suggests that Lee’s struggle with the story of Willie Maxwell was tied to her frustration with In Cold Blood.  Lee didn’t believe there was such a thing as a “nonfiction novel.”  And she could never get The Reverend to come together as a story.  Cep discovered that she’d given a fictional version a start, but that version she’d also abandoned.  

In Furious Hours, Cep takes up Lee’s unfinished work.  She dives into the abyss between reporting and writing that seems to have swallowed up Lee’s work on The Reverend.  “Nothing writes itself,” Cep says.  “Left to its own devices, the world will never transform into words, and no matter how many pages of notes and interviews and documents a reporting trip generates, the one that matters most always starts out blank.”   Lee filled her blank pages as letters to friends, family, admirers, and students.  Cep tells us: “She might have struggled sometimes with the prose in her books, but in her letters she wrote with the ear of Eudora Welty, the eye of Walker Evans, the precision of John Donne, the wit of Dorothy Parker, and, often, the length of George Eliot.”

I’m guessing Cep too, who is so sympathetic to Lee, has stared at blank pages of her own, trying to wrestle her reporter’s notes into the story she wants to tell.  On page after page, Cep brings a remarkable imagination to the work of solving the problems Furious Hours raises.  It’s fascinating to watch her muscle together two very different stories—the story of Maxwell and his murderous ways and the story of Lee and her literary frustrations.  The book is a tribute to Lee but it is also a record of Cep’s wide reading and wonderfully encyclopedic knowledge.  She seems to have the Epistles of St. Paul, the aphorisms of Kierkegaard, the folklore of Zora Neale Hurston and the poems of Robert Lowell—her army of intellectual allies—all at the ready. 

Cep is good to her less famous allies, too.  She has written lovely endnotes for each of her chapters.  Each opens with a brief annotated bibliography that tells us where Cep worked in archives and what she read as she pulled Furious Hours together. Lots of people talked to her, gave her notes and clippings and helped her puzzle through her questions, even those she never answered.  I’ll give her credit: she’s transformed a world into words and made her blank pages into an unusually smart book.

 Ann Fabian is president of the Society of American Historians