Countdown to the Decatur Book Festival: A Baker’s Dozen of Literary Treats
Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, served as a research assistant to her friend, Truman Capote as he researched the Cutter Family murders. These murders were the subject of Capote’s seminal work, In Cold Blood, often touted as the book that transformed non-fiction into a literary genre. Lee’s work was crucial in the publication of Capote’s book, and planted a seed that she would like to write a “true crime novel” of her own, correcting what she perceived as the flaws in Capote’s work, most notably those elements that Capote might call flourishes and Lee would call falsehoods.
In the late 1970s, Lee began to research a series of murders that took place in Alabama. Willie Maxwell, a traveling Baptist preacher, appeared to have murdered several family members. Reverend Maxwell was charged with the murder of his wife, but was acquitted, in great part due to the prowess of his attorney, Tom Radney. Gaining confidence, other family members died under suspicious circumstances. These deaths didn’t yield enough evidence to bring a formal criminal accusation, but despite formal criminal charges, most folks in that small town had a solid believe that Reverend Maxwell was responsible for these deaths.
The Reverand’s last alledged murder was of his stepdaughter. At her funeral, Robert Burns shot Maxwell point blank, killing him. Although over 300 people witnessed the shooting, Burns was acquitted of all charges. In the eyes of the townspeople, this was justice come full circle. No doubt Burns’ result stemmed from his excellent legal council by none other than Tom Radney, naturally.
Harper Lee couldn’t resist the pull of this fabulous story and researched the trials and other potential crimes of Reverend Maxwell. She took her research back to New York to begin writing, but, of course, no book was ever published. Casey Cep, undertook her own investigation tracing Harper Lee’s steps and looking into possible reasons the book was never written.
This account, rather than being the book that Harper Lee might have written, follows it’s own, creative and satisfying framework. The first part of the book discusses Willie Maxwell, his crimes and motives; the second introduces his attorney, Tom Radney, his history and his defense of Robert Burns for killing his former client. Finally, the third and most meaty portion of her book is dedicated to following the career of Harper Lee and trying to uncover why her intended book was never published.
One of the most satisfying reads of 2019, Cep was able to accomplish what her subject was not: writing a riveting and literary non-fiction investigative story that soars even when all the answers are not readily available and even when loose ends don’t necessarily have a bow.
Check out Casey Cep at the Decatur Book Festival!