Harper Lee: New details of lost true crime book revealed
Author Casey Cep reveals discovery of briefcase full of Harper Lee’s notes on Alabama preacher suspected of murders
Author of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee: worked on true crime case. Photograph: Donald Uhrbrock/Time Life Pictures/Getty Image
A long-rumoured briefcase containing research materials for the beginnings of a true crime book by Harper Lee has been found, confirming that the To Kill a Mockingbird author made a substantial start on a book that some believe exists somewhere in her estate.
Writing in the Guardian her new book Furious Hours, which details her search for Lee’s manuscript, author and journalist Casey Cep reveals the breakthrough that occurred in 2017. Cep is one of just a few individuals who have read the only known chapter of Lee’s unpublished book, The Reverend, about the case of Reverend William Maxwell. A preacher in Alexander City, Alabama, Maxwell was suspected of murdering two of his wives, his brother, a nephew, a neighbour and one of his step-daughters, but was never found guilty.
Cep said that, in 2017, she was contacted by the family of Maxwell’s attorney, Tom Radney, who had assisted Lee’s research for her unfinished book and remained in contact with her for decades. Radney’s family said that Lee’s estate was finally returning a briefcase belonging to the lawyer, who had died in 2011. Radney had given her all his files on the case in 1977, but Lee’s estate had long denied that she had held on to them. Replying to a request by the Radneys for its return in 2013, Lee’s lawyer Tonja B Carter wrote: “Unfortunately, Miss Lee does not have your grandfather’s files. I am sorry we were not able to help.”
Cep was given access to the briefcase, which was stuffed with case records, depositions, court transcripts, letters, maps, newspaper clippings and more. It was a shocking discovery, she writes in the Guardian: “The briefcase had been in her possession until her death; it was covered with dust, but brimming with legal files and Lee’s other materials – everything from the catalogue of an occult bookstore where she bought voodoo books to the warranty for the tape recorder she used while reporting on the Maxwell case. I had spent years trying to reconstruct her work on The Reverend, and here were her files and photocopies, documents and research.”
The “most significant” find was a single page of Lee’s notes, detailing her interview with a sister of Maxwell’s first wife, which was identical in style to her work on her childhood friend Truman Capote’s 1966 true crime classic In Cold Blood.
“For the first time,” Cep writes. “I had material evidence of their perfect echo with her reporting in Alexander City.”
After almost two decades out of the public eye while struggling with the success of her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Lee first heard about Maxwell in 1977 when he was shot in the head at the funeral of his final alleged victim, his step-daughter Shirley Ann Ellington. Maxwell was killed by a relative of Ellington, Robert Lewis Burns, who was later acquitted by reason of insanity. The following year, Lee began interviewing police officers, attorneys, judges, reporters and relatives of Maxwell’s victims with the intent of writing a book.
In her research, Lee learned Maxwell had made thousands of dollars from taking out dozens of insurance policies on his victims. “He might not have believed in what he preached, he might not have believed in voodoo, but he had a profound and abiding belief in insurance,” she wrote.
A month after a second Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, was announced in 2015, Cep revealed in the New Yorker that the Radney family possessed a chapter by Lee that she had sent him decades before. Consisting of four typed pages, with the title The Reverend handwritten by Lee in the margins, the chapter sees Lee refer to Maxwell by name, while renaming Radney as “Jonathan Larkin” – a possible sign that Lee was considering tackling the case in fiction.
It has long been debated how far Lee got with the project. In 1987, she wrote to another writer also researching the case: “I do believe that the Reverend Maxwell murdered at least five people, that his motive was greed, that he had an accomplice for two of the murders and an accessory for one. The person I believe to have been his accomplice/accessory is alive, well, and living not 150 miles from you . . . I do not have enough hard facts about the actual crimes for a book-length account.”
But Radney and his family have long asserted that Lee told him she had written most of a book, with Radney telling a journalist in 1997: “I still talk to Nelle twice a year, and every time we talk, she says she’s still working on it.”
While the Radney family was hopeful that The Reverend would be found after Go Set a Watchman was announced, her estate has been sealed since her death in 2016. Cep believes whatever exists of The Reverend will remain unpublished until it is unsealed. – Guardian