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I can’t think of another book that is two books in one — and both are sensationally good.
The first book in “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee” is about murder and fraud. And it’s just as compelling as the James M. Cain murder/insurance thrillers, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.”Really, it’s beyond Cain. Reverend Willie Maxwell was a black preacher in Alabama. And slick? As Casey Cep writes, “His shoes were always polished, his suits were always black and a tie almost always accentuated his crisp white shirts.” Tragedy struck on August 3, 1970, when the police found his wife’s body in a car on the side of a country road. “She was swollen and bruised, her face covered with lacerations, her jawbone chipped, her nose dislocated; she was missing part of her left ear, which the police eventually found on the floorboard of the back seat.” There was some consolation: the Reverend had insured his wife… with 17 insurance policies.
But… there’s more. Maxwell remarried. And, again, insured his wife. And, again, she was found on another country road, dead in her car. She too was insured. And then Maxwell bought life insurance policies on more family members: “Among others, his wife, his mother, his brothers, his aunts, his nieces, his nephews and the infant daughter he had only just legitimated.” One by one, over seven years, six people close to Maxwell died under suspicious circumstances. “For the Reverend Willie Maxwell,” Cep writes, “becoming a widower was a lucrative business.”
I hate spoilers, but this is necessary. At the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl Maxwell had recently adopted — yes, he killed her too! — a mourner pulled out a pistol and shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell three times in the head. Three hundred people saw him do it. Irony: Maxwell was essentially a serial killer, but he was never convicted of anything. As Cep notes of his killer, however, “A first-year law student could have successfully prosecuted the case in his sleep.” Did that happen? Read on….
Book two explores another Alabama mystery. On July 11, 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published. Harper Lee died in 2016. In the 56 years since she became one of the richest, most admired writers in America, she never wrote another book. Why not? That mystery and the trial are the story of the second half of this book. [To buy the book of “Furious Hours” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Lee did start to write another book… about Willie Maxwell. And she returned to Alabama for the trial of his killer. As Cep writes:
Nobody recognized her. Harper Lee was well known, but not by sight, and if she hadn’t introduced herself, it’s unlikely that anyone in the courtroom would have figured out who she was. Hundreds of people were crowded into the gallery, filling the wooden benches that squeaked whenever someone moved or leaning against the back wall if they hadn’t arrived in time for a seat. Late September wasn’t late enough for the Alabama heat to have died down, and the air-conditioning in the courthouse wasn’t working, so the women waved fans while the men’s suits grew damp under their arms and around their collars. The spectators whispered from time to time, and every so often they laughed—an uneasy laughter that evaporated whenever the judge quieted them….
One of the reporters wasn’t constrained by a daily deadline. Harper Lee lived in Manhattan but still spent some of each year in Monroeville, the town where she was born and raised, only 150 miles away from Alex City. Seventeen years had passed since she’d published To Kill a Mockingbird and twelve since she’d finished helping her friend Truman Capote report the crime story in Kansas that became In Cold Blood. Now, finally, she was ready to try again. One of the state’s best trial lawyers was arguing one of the state’s strangest cases, and the state’s most famous author was there to write about it. She would spend a year in town investigating the case, and many more turning it into prose. The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would become of the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.
The answer is a tragedy. The ingredients are writer’s block. Alcohol. The loss of her support system. The difficulty of learning every last fact. The end of her friendship with Capote. The complexity of a story that has a white lawyer defending a black vigilante. And much more — in short bursts, Cep delivers a brief history of race and farming and water and politics in Alabama.
There was a book Harper Lee wanted to write, and couldn’t. And a book about herself that the obsessively private Harper Lee wouldn’t have dreamed of writing. In 275 pages, Casey Cep has written both.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
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