Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • This “superbly written true-crime story” (The New York Times Book Review) masterfully brings together the tales of a serial killer in 1970s Alabama and of Harper Lee, the beloved author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who tried to write his story.
Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members, but with the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative assassinated him at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted—thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the reverend himself. Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who spent a year in town reporting on the Maxwell case and many more trying to finish the book she called The Reverend.
Cep brings this remarkable story to life, from the horrifying murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South, while offering a deeply moving portrait of one of our most revered writers.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
After writing her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee worked on a true crime book about the murder of suspected Alabama serial killer Willie Maxwell for years—but never finished it. Decades later, New Yorker journalist Casey Cep more than delivers on the promise of Lee’s work with the engrossing Furious Hours. Lee spent years tracking the real-life saga of Alabama preacher Willie Maxwell, who escaped conviction on five counts of murder only to be killed by vigilante Robert Burns. Cep explores the facts of both men’s crimes and their intertwining backstories, brilliantly weaving in Southern history and a mesmerizing portrait of a famous—and famously private—writer.
Journalist Cep makes her debut with a brilliant account of Harper Lee's failed attempt to write a true crime book. Part one follows the career of Alabama preacher Willie Maxwell as five family members over several years die under mysterious circumstances, all with large life insurance policies held by the reverend, rumored also to be a voodoo priest. On June 18, 1977, Maxwell was shot dead in front of 300 people at his stepdaughter's funeral in Alexander City, Ala. Part two focuses on his killer's trial later that year, which Harper Lee attended. Along the way, Cep relates the history of courthouses, voodoo, Alabama politics, and everything one needs to know about the insanity defense. Part three charts the To Kill a Mockingbird author's efforts to write about the trial, but in Alexander City she finds only myths, lies, and her own insecurities. By many accounts, Lee wrote a book and may have rewritten it as fiction, though no manuscript has ever been found. As to what happened to the years of work Lee did on the story, Cep notes, "Lee... was so elusive that even her mysteries have mysteries: not only what she wrote, but how; not only when she stopped, but why." Meticulously researched, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Lee and American literary history. Author tour.