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.
Novelist Harper Lee, long beloved for To Kill a Mockingbird, has always seemed a somewhat bittersweet figure to me in terms of her literary contributions. As much as I, and so many others, love that book, it’s sad to consider that she never published another. (I’m not sure what to make of the controversial Go Set a Watchman.)
Her lack of published works wasn’t exactly for lack of trying. It’s well known that Lee meticulously assisted her childhood friend, Truman Capote, in Kansas doing research and interviews about the Clutter family’s murders for what would become In Cold Blood, with suspicion being that she more than he was responsible for significant chunks of it. (“‘It was deep calling to deep,’ she’d say later, quoting the psalmist. ‘The crime intrigued him, and I’m intrigued with crime – and boy, I wanted to go.'”)
Hearing of another curious crime story, Lee returned to Tallapoosa County in her native Alabama in the late 1970s to cover the trial of a man accused of murdering a murderer. The Reverend Willie Maxwell, an opaque, sometimes near-supernatural figure, had been shot in a church during the funeral of his stepdaughter. The young girl was the fifth of the Reverend’s relations, including two wives, found dead under similar mysterious circumstances. He’d had insurance policies on all of them.
Even three months dead, he still managed to spook plenty of people; stories about his posthumous powers proliferated, as did the fear that he would take revenge from beyond the grave. “Around town the talk is he’s already back … folks say he’d been seen in town driving a car.” People also said that the Reverend Willie Maxwell voted in an election after he was too dead to pull the lever, and that a mysterious light shined above his grave.
Supernatural explanations sometimes flourish where law and order fails, which is why, as time passed and more people died, the stories about the Reverend grew stronger, stranger, and, if possible, more sinister.
Reverend Maxwell had been acquitted of one murder on the efforts of a charismatic lawyer named Tom Radney, who was later hired to defend Maxwell’s own murderer. Consider these circumstances: having once successfully argued his client’s innocence, he now had to argue that of a man who, in front of a church full of witnesses, had shot that man dead to stop a crime spree the whole community suspected he was committing.
Radney recognized the juicy story here and got Alabama’s native daughter involved. She moved to Alexander City to research and write her own true crime “nonfiction novel”, The Reverend.
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.
This is almost two books in one, as despite the obvious connection between Lee’s story and the Reverend’s, the parts are noticeably distinct in subject and style, in what seems a conscious effort on author Casey Cep’s part. It’s an example of this kind of divide working brilliantly, never feeling disjointed or disharmonious.
Cep is a writer of significant gifts that manifest in different ways. In writing about Lee, she does so with sensitivity but also with deep insight into Lee’s actions and the context her life provides. This extends to her understanding of racism in the Deep South and the way it’s handled, like in Go Set a Watchman, where horrified readers learned that Atticus Finch was racist, with his character’s connection to Lee’s father. She also covers some biography on Lee, and it’s exquisite. Even knowing some of Lee’s story already, the treatment it gets here is poignantly revealing. Lee’s troubled relationship with New York is one such element:
Like many self-exiled people, she was betwixt and between – wanting to write about Alabama when she was in New York, and wanting to be in New York whenever she was home in Alabama.
The New York that Harper Lee had known was changing, as it does for so many, one fiend and one building at a time.
In telling the Reverend’s story in the book’s first portion – of his crimes, trial, murder, then his murderer’s trial – Cep writes descriptively, lacing it with socioeconomic elements, race, culture, history, and lush descriptions to illustrate the scenery:
Ghost bells, war cries, the clanging of slave chains: if ever a land came by its haunting honestly, it is eastern Alabama. In the long empty miles between towns there, the highways rise and fall over hills that keep most things out of view and make every sight a sudden one. Where the pavement ends, the roads turn to dirt as red as rust or blood. Pines and oak trees line them, tattered moss hanging from their branches like wraiths. At night, the fog is so thick that anything can disappear into it or come walking out of it.
In telling these stories, Lee’s previous work gets significant attention, as her standards may have been responsible for the The Reverend‘s abandonment. She was reportedly disappointed with Capote’s treatment of the Clutter story, his inclusion of embellishments that went beyond narrative flourishes. She wanted to report the truth but to write it compellingly, and these were early days in narrative nonfiction. Capote had arguably pioneered it, with the help of Lee’s carefully organized research and her note-taking on all those delightful, vivid details often ignored in straightforward nonfiction reporting.
Building on the work of John Hersey, Joseph Mitchell, and Lillian Ross, Capote applied the techniques of fiction to nonfiction, rendering settings that were more than just datelines, crafting characters who were more than just quotations and physical descriptions, and identifying within his reporting, or imposing on it, moods and themes that made a story more than the sum of its parts.
Cep also includes bits and pieces from Lee’s writings over the years; particularly illuminating are those from her personal letters. They’re creative, insightful, and funny, often on topics that seemed to have caught her fancy, like Lizzie Borden: “Anyone burdened with long petticoats and having had mutton soup for breakfast on a day like that was bound to have murdered somebody before sundown.”
It’s disappointing as you realize what an incredible talent Lee was, with such potential to contribute even more to the American literary landscape than she did. This is a masterful work, weaving together many threads – race and economics in the South, personal demons in New York, the genesis of narrative nonfiction, and telling the strange story of the Reverend by picking up where Lee left off and allowing the author, and her demons, to be a part of that story as well. 4.5/5
Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
by Casey Cep
published May 7, 2019 by Knopf
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.