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Art

True-crime book combines stories of murder, race and literary aspirations

Canyon Crest Academy students and staff at the event with the author: (Standing): Amelia Bolaris, Abby Fraser, principal Brett Killeen, teacher Gary Malanga, Lily Pfeizer, Meghana Enugurthi. Seated: Rachael Cheverton, Zoe Sandberg Smith, author Casey Cep, Natalie Norton, Bella Braun
(McKenzie Images)

Casey Cep weaves together three intriguing stories in her new book – a string of mysterious deaths linked to a southern preacher who may have dabbled in voodoo, a liberal attorney with political ambitions in deeply conservative Alabama, and the attempted comeback of a beloved author.

“This book is built on a lot of different mysteries,” said Cep, the speaker at the Jan. 13 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society and author of “Furious Hours – murder, fraud and the last trial of Harper Lee.” The event was held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.

Key questions raised by “Furious Hours,” published in 2019 by Knopf, included: How did the Reverend Willie Maxwell get away with murdering five family members and claiming their life insurance payouts? How did his attorney, Tom Radney, keep Maxwell out of prison? And what happened to the book that Harper Lee, famed author of the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and an Alabama native, planned to write about the Maxwell case?

Cep does not provide definitive answers. Instead, she thoroughly researched each of the three strands of her narrative and presented her findings so that readers could decide for themselves.

The book - Cep’s first - grew out of an article she wrote for the New Yorker magazine, titled, “Harper Lee’s Abandoned True-Crime Novel.” After the article came out in 2015, Cep said, she began to hear from people who had met Lee during the time in the late 1970s when the author had moved to Alabama to report on the Maxwell case. Also, additional documents began to surface that added more details to the stories.

“It seemed like there was a bigger story to tell,” Cep said in an interview before her talk.

Cep’s research included interviews of many people linked to the three main subjects, including friends and relatives of Lee. Some were more open to talking about Lee after the author’s death in 2016.

In writing her book, Cep sought to put the central stories of the murders, and Lee’s role in reporting on the case, in context of other aspects of society at the time, such as Alabama politics and religion, a particular interest of Cep’s. Her book includes background about the Baptist church and voodoo culture, which was imported to the South by African slaves, via the Caribbean.

Rumors circulated in Alabama that Willie Maxwell was a voodoo practitioner.

“’Coincidence’ just wasn’t a word that rolled off the tongues in Alabama as easily as ‘conjuring,’ so when Willie Maxwell was acquitted of murdering his first wife and remarried the young widow of his conveniently deceased neighbor, a lot of people were convinced that he had used voodoo to fix the jury, put death on his neighbor’s trail and charm a younger woman,” Cep wrote.

Harper Lee entered the story in the late 1970s, after Maxwell’s 5th alleged victim, his stepdaughter, was found murdered. The girl’s uncle, apparently incensed by the death and Maxwell’s impunity, shot the reverend dead during the girl’s service at a local funeral home.

Before publishing her famous novel in 1960, Lee had helped her friend, Truman Capote, as he researched “In Cold Blood,” a true-crime story told in a novelized style about the brutal murder of a family in Kansas.

“She was trying to write her own, ‘In Cold Blood,’” Cep said of Lee, who settled on the true-crime thriller after attempts to write a follow-up novel during the 1960s and early 1970s did not result in any published work.

Along with interviews, Cep relied on letters written to and by Lee to piece together the story.

One mystery that remains, said Cep, is what Lee actually wrote about the Maxwell case after spending most of a year reporting in Alexander City, Alabama. Some who knew Lee said she wrote the book but decided not to publish it, perhaps due to fear of retribution from the reverend’s accomplices. Others said she went back to New York after her time in Alabama and simply was unable to write the book.

In one letter, said Cep, Lee claimed to have written two-thirds of the book.

Cep said that during her research, she went back and forth on whether she believed a manuscript of the book exists. According to Cep, Lee’s estate remains sealed and it is unknown what unpublished work exists.

Lee spent much of her adult life in New York City, where she attended Mets games, visited museums and enjoyed cocktail parties with her friends, among other activities, said Cep. She also struggled with depression, alcohol and writer’s block. Although she never again matched the success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a bestseller that was turned into a hit movie, and also won a Pulitzer prize, the royalties from that book allowed her to lead a comfortable life.

“One book made her a millionaire and kept her that way for a long time,” Cep said.

For more information, visit caseycep.com.

See more photos from this RSF Literary Society event on this website (rsfreview.com, photo galleries)


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