Did Harper Lee, who died in 2016, leave behind a true-crime manuscript? That’s the mystery Casey Cep tries to unravel in “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” which enters the list this week at No. 6.
On a recent episode of the Times Book Review podcast, she explained, “I went down to Monroeville to report that story for The New Yorker because there was so much surprise about that manuscript, questions about its provenance and concerns about Lee’s ability to consent to its publication.” While in Alabama, she learned Lee had apparently worked on a nonfiction book for years: “The Reverend,” which was about a charismatic preacher named Willie Maxwell who killed five members of his family in the 1970s in order to collect the insurance money.
“When it seems like there might be another manuscript by Harper Lee,” Cep says, “you start looking into it.”
Cep might not have known about “The Reverend” before 2015, but the people around Lake Martin, Ala. — where the murders took place — certainly did. That’s because Lee spent so much time in the area researching Maxwell. “Down there they’ve all known about the book since the 1970s. When they heard she was publishing a new book, they were sure as they could be it was the one about the reverend.”
There’s no clear origin story for “The Reverend.” Cep points out that Lee and her sisters “were obsessed with true crime, and they followed cases like this all the time.” In addition, she says, the Maxwell case “intersected with Lee’s interest in how justice can be found inside and outside a courtroom.”
So did Lee leave behind a manuscript for “The Reverend” or not? Lee once wrote in a letter, “I do not have enough hard facts about the actual crimes for a book-length account.” But Cep says many of the author’s friends are sure that “when the archive is unsealed, there is going to be more work. There are more manuscripts where ‘Watchman’ came from.” Tonja B. Carter, Lee’s longtime lawyer and the executor of her estate, hinted in a 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed that another book does, in fact, exist.
What does Cep believe? “I think there’s potential for her to have written the whole thing,” she told The Times recently. “People who lived around her … heard the typewriter at all hours of the day and night.”
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