Excerpt: "Furious Hours," about Harper Lee's true crime investigation

Last Updated Apr 26, 2019 2:21 PM EDT

For years Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and a best friend of "In Cold Blood" author Truman Capote, had researched and worked on a true-crime novel of her own based on a series of deaths in Alabama, for which a small-town preacher had been rumored to be responsible. Though never found guilty, the Reverend did collect life insurance policies on several family members who'd mysteriously died, until he himself was murdered by a vigilante in broad daylight. But Lee's book never materialized, before her death in 2016.

Writer Casey Cep, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times, has now published a book about the case and about Lee's obsession with it, called "Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee" (Knopf), to be published May 7.

Read an excerpt below, and don't miss Rita Braver's interview with Casey Cep on "CBS Sunday Morning" on April 28!


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Knopf

Prologue

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.

The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. Three months before, at the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl, the man with his legs crossed patiently beside the defense table had pulled a pistol from the inside pocket of his jacket and shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell three times in the head. Three hundred people had seen him do it. Many of them were now at his trial, not to learn why he had killed the Reverend — everyone in three counties knew that, and some were surprised no one had done it sooner — but to understand the disturbing series of deaths that had come before the one they'd witnessed.

One by one, over a period of seven years, six people close to the Reverend had died under circumstances that nearly everyone agreed were suspicious and some deemed supernatural. Through all of the resulting investigations, the Reverend was represented by a lawyer named Tom Radney, whose presence in the courtroom that day wouldn't have been remarkable had he not been there to defend the man who killed his former client. A Kennedy liberal in the Wallace South, Radney was used to making headlines, and this time he would make them far beyond the local Alexander City Outlook. Reporters from The Associated Press and other wire services, along with national magazines and newspapers including Newsweek and The New York Times, had flocked to Alexander City to cover what was already being called the tale of the murderous voodoo preacher and the vigilante who shot him.

One of the reporters, though, 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.

Excerpted from "Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee" by Casey Cep. Copyright © 2019 by Casey N. Cep. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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