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In September 1977, Nelle Harper Lee, about 17 years after publishing her first and only novel, returned to her native Alabama with the intent of beginning work on her second book.
Harper Lee, author, of course, of the iconic “To Kill A Mockingbird,” traveled from her home in New York to Alexander City, Ala., to research and write about the life and times of the Rev. Willie Maxwell and on the trail of Robert Burns, who shot and killed Maxwell in front of hundreds of witnesses.
In “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, And The Last Trial Of Harper Lee,” Casey Cep explores the life of Maxwell, a minister/laborer, known for his stylish clothing and speech; his attorney Tom Radney, a loyal national Democrat in a land beginning to embrace Republican politics; and of Lee, one of the most beloved and enigmatic authors in American history.
Cep, a Maryland resident, who will be a presenter at Saturday’s Mississippi Book Festival, extensively researches the book, catches much of the essences of rural Alabama, which, of course, was much like rural Mississippi during a time frame ranging from essentially the 1940s into the 1970s. The story also wanders into more modern times, associated with the last days and death of Harper Lee and the publication of her second book, “Go Set A Watchman.”
Many, especially in Alexander City, believed at the time the book was announced that it would be the story of the trial of Burns for the shooting death of the Rev. Maxwell.
But it was not. Cep, essentially tells three stories in “Furious Hours” – that of Maxwell, Radney and Lee, but despite the mysteries surrounding Maxwell, it is the question of why Lee did not write another book, particularly on the trial, that was the cornerstone of Cep’s story.
There were all sorts of rumors involving what happened to the book on the trial – a manuscript was written but stolen, a manuscript was started but never finished and others. The bottom line is that Lee, who earned tremendous wealth soon after the publication of Mockingbird, never was able to catch that lightning in a bottle again, but apparently not from lack of trying.
And as Cep accurately pointed out, there are numerous letters she wrote through the years that are insightful, artistic, and sarcastic, but she apparently never wrote another book that was published. “Go Set A Watchman” was written prior to “To Kill A Mockingbird” and rejected in the late 1950s as promising but needing more work.
Cep at times gets way into the weeds, such as in the construction of Lake Martin, a key landmark in the Alexander City area and on the history of life insurance. But overall, she brings to life a fascinating set of intertwined stories. She goes into fascinating detail about Lee, who in ways was a misfit in her native Monroeville, but was from a prominent family who nourished her and helped her thrive. Along the way many others helped look after Lee, who was talented and in ways independent, but in other ways fragile and in need of care. No doubt, Lee had many demons, which Cep explores.
The book describes Lee’s part in helping Truman Capote, her childhood friend from Monroeville, report on a gruesome homicide of a family in rural Kansas leading to his ground-breaking novel “In Cold Blood.” Based on Cep’s accounts, it is hard to believe “In Cold Blood” could have been written by Capote if not for the efforts of Lee to develop trust with Kansans – many of whom shied away from Capote, who was famous for his quirky and eccentric ways.
The Alexander City trial was supposed to be Lee’s “In Cold Blood,” but she wanted her effort to be absent some of the questions about the facts in Capote’s book.
Maxwell was a military veteran who returned to his home area and worked in several jobs – in the mills and as a pulpwood hauler – and as a minister. Over a very short period, several members of his family, including two wives died under mysterious circumstances. It so happened that Maxwell had multiple life insurance policies on the deceased.
Law enforcement never could pin the deaths on Maxwell or in most cases prove they were homicides. Maxwell’s legend and the fear of him grew in rural east central Alabama to the point that the locals believed he practiced voodoo.
It would not be out of the ordinary to assume law enforcement in rural Alabama of the 1960s and 70s would spend little time on deaths in the African American community such as those involving members of the Maxwell family. But Cep indicates that law enforcement officials tried but could not solve the cases. Law officers were hopeful of making a successful case against Maxwell for the death of his stepdaughter. But before they could, Maxwell was shot dead in the funeral home in front of hundreds of mourners by Burns, an uncle of the deceased girl.
After the shooting, another Burns relative told him not to worry “Big Tom’ll get you out of this.”
Big Tom was Radney, a small town attorney, politician and unabashed Kennedy liberal in the heart of Dixie. Radney had defended Maxwell and even helped him garner life insurance payouts after the mysterious deaths of his relatives, though Radney said at the time he would not have defended Maxwell for the death of his stepdaughter.
But Radney did defend Burns and get an acquittal for reason of insanity.
Perhaps, Radney would have been the next Atticus Finch if Harper Lee had written her account of the trial. But thus, we will never know.
Casey Cep will appear on the panel “True Crime Across America” at 2:45 p.m. in the Old Supreme Court chamber of the state Capitol. Other panelists include Curtis Wilkie, Karen Abbott, and A. Brad Schwartz. She also will be on a conversation panel at 10:45 a.m. in room 204 of the Capitol.
Read our staff picks, which we’ll update throughout the week.