Searching for Harper Lee’s Lost Book About a Serial Killer
After writing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Harper Lee searched in vain for a second act, until she stumbled across a series of murders that came to obsess her.
Casey Cep was on assignment for The New Yorker when she decided to go to Alabama after the publication of Harper Lee’s previously unpublished novel, Go Set A Watchman, was announced. “There was a lot of scuttlebutt about who was managing [Lee’s] affairs, and in an effort to know as much as I could, I cast a wide net,” says Cep, author of the new book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.
It was in Alabama that Cep met members of the Radney family, who were trying to retrieve some papers lent to Lee by the late Tom Radney, a prominent local lawyer. That’s when Cep learned that years after Lee had written To Kill A Mockingbird, the book that had made her internationally famous and very wealthy, she had been interested in writing a book about a notorious series of mysterious murders that took place in rural Coosa County, Alabama, in the ’70s.
Those killings involved Willie Maxwell, an African-American preacher who, over the course of seven years, allegedly killed seven people close to him, including two wives, a nephew, and an adopted daughter. “Allegedly,” because Maxwell was never convicted of any of the murders, even though he had taken out multiple life insurance policies on the deceased, naming himself as the beneficiary. This lack of convictions didn’t, however, stop the locals from their unshaken belief that not only was Maxwell a serial killer, but that he had never been convicted of a crime because he was a voodoo priest with such great powers he could sway juries and charm women.
“On the one hand you have a man with seven years of formal education, but on the other hand, he seemed incredibly smart and intelligent,” says Cep, who adds that the local police, prosecutors, and crime lab personnel did their due diligence, but just couldn’t seem to pin anything on him. Maxwell “was a very sophisticated criminal, and once he figured out the life insurance scam, I think that’s where his intelligence becomes obvious. ‘Mastermind’ is the word you tend to use for people who are that sophisticated in their fraud.”
But wait. There’s more to the story. On June 18, 1977, at the funeral of the adopted daughter he supposedly killed, the step-uncle of the deceased woman, a man named Robert Burns, walked up to Maxwell during the wake, pulled out a pistol, and shot him dead. Even more incredibly, Tom Radney, the lawyer who had defended Maxwell over the years, opted to defend Burns, had him plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and won. Burns was sent to a hospital, and was released six weeks later, a free man.
Radney won, says Cep in the book, because he was able to convince the jury that Maxwell was “the witchiest witch doctor and voodooingest voodoo priest the South had ever known,” and that Burns was a war hero [Vietnam] whose patriotic bravery halfway across the world had his sensitive heart and susceptible mind vulnerable to trauma back home.”
You’d have to be crazy not to want to write about all these bizarre happenings, and Harper Lee, who found out about the Maxwell case from Tom Radney himself, sure wasn’t crazy. Nor is Cep, who after finding out about Maxwell felt “obviously you would be a bad reporter if you didn’t want to know more. I was fascinated by this minister whose reputation had included these allegations of being a voodoo priest. If Harper Lee had not been part of this case, it still would have been fascinating.”
The fact is, 17 years after Mockingbird had been published, Lee had been desperately looking for something to write about. She did not enjoy her celebrity, was suffering from writer’s block, and had become something of a depressive, reclusive drunk.
“There were a constellation of things that made it difficult for her to write—alcohol, a depressive attitude, her choice of things to write,” says Cep. “Beginning in the ’60s, she was stymied by the public reception of Mockingbird, and how to do it again.” Or, as Cep puts it in her book, “Lee wasn’t just struggling with a second novel; she was struggling with everything.”
So the Burns trial was a perfect opportunity for Lee to return to her home state—she had been living primarily in Manhattan for years—and dig deep into a good story, one she hoped to turn into a work of literary non-fiction, as her friend Truman Capote had done with In Cold Blood.
But Lee quickly ran into roadblocks. Even though Radney had given her all his files on the case, she did not regard him as a reliable narrator. She could dig up very little backstory for Maxwell, and she had a serious lack of familiarity with the lives of African-Americans. In fact, Lee’s racial attitudes were defined by being a white woman growing up in small town Alabama in the ’30s (the setting of Mockingbird), and, says Cep, “her fiction is somewhat autobiographical, she was struggling to break away from this racism. I think she had conservative impulses, and the compartmentalized life she led, in New York and Alabama, that speaks to her unsettledness.”
So Lee decided to fictionalize the story, and titled it “The Reverend.” She even typed up a first chapter—that is in the Radney family’s possession—but nothing came of it. Ten years passed between the time she first heard the Maxwell story, and when she gave up on it. And Lee never mentioned her attempt to fictionalize the tale, or how much she’d actually written. Eventually, the book slipped into the land of legend and rumor.
“You had people who knew Harper very well, and said she never wrote anything,” says Cep. “There is another school of thought that she wrote the whole thing, but the publisher didn’t want it, it was too racially sensitive. Others said she tried, but didn’t know how to end it. There is not one group that is any more reliable than any other. It’s incredibly possible to me, there’s enough for a book, and I absolutely think she wrote it. But the mystery of the book is as intractable as Maxwell’s crimes.”
Yet this much is certain. Harper Lee died in 2016 at the age of 89. Her estate is sealed. So if there really is a finished book called The Reverend, it will never see the light of day.