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The bizarre murder mystery that stymied Harper Lee

“To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee in a local courthouse while visting her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee in a local courthouse while visting her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.(Donald Uhrbrock/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

After the spectacular success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee hit the wall. Where do you go after selling millions of books, winning a Pulitzer Prize, and spawning an Oscar-winning movie? Downward seems inevitable.

However doggedly Lee kept at it, she failed to publish another book during her lifetime. Casey Cep’s oddly titled “Furious Hours” amounts to two different books. In one, she reports — as best she can, given limited sources — the story of that dispiriting struggle. But she also tells, with great verve, the fascinating true-crime story that Lee failed to complete.

Cep, who has written for The New Yorker and other magazines, begins her book with the creepy stuff. In 1977, the Rev. Willie Maxwell, an uneducated black preacher in rural Alabama, was shot dead at a funeral service while on trial for murdering his 16-year-old stepdaughter. A charming dapper dresser, he was also notorious in Coosa County, suspected of killing six others, including two wives, a brother-in-law, and a nephew. In each case, he was never convicted and collected thousands of dollars in insurance he had taken out on the victims.

Many locals feared Maxwell as a voodoo priest, with power over life and death, and were relieved that he was dead. “[T]he only thing scarier than an unknown murderer,” Cep writes, “is a known one.”

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Then, in a bizarre twist, Maxwell’s longtime lawyer, Tom Radney, successfully defended his late client’s killer, Robert Burns. This “righteous vigilante,” acquitted by reason of insanity, spent mere weeks in a state hospital before being released.

More complicated than Atticus Finch, Radney was admired for his legal skills, represented poor blacks, and professed unapologetic liberalism in the George Wallace era. An ambitious man of “relentless sociability,” he once ran for lieutenant governor of Alabama.

He was, however, not without critics. The 50 percent share that came his way from Maxwell’s insurance settlements seemed tainted. To many observers, his idealism partnered uneasily with opportunism.

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Did he also envision Gregory Peck as his future portrayer when he conveyed his voluminous case files on Maxwell to Lee, who attended the Burns trial? In any event, these are among the many sources that Cep has mined, courtesy of Radney’s widow, to bring this bizarre story to life.

The author ably sifts through the evidence for Maxwell’s crimes and explains the sometimes arcane mores of the Deep South. Ever eager to provide context, however, she tends to plunge into narrative black holes. “Before Lieutenant Henry Farley fired the first ten-inch mortar at Fort Sumter,” one section begins, “there was not much of a life insurance industry in the United States.” And does she really need references to the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to make her point about insurance company discrimination against black customers?

Cep devotes less than half of the remaining pages to Lee before and after “Mockingbird.” Some of them recount the already well-known trajectory of the whip-smart tomboy with a sickly mother and an Atticus-like father, her friendship with the neighbor boy who would become Truman Capote, college and law school in Alabama, the move to New York, and the writing apprenticeship while working as an airline ticket agent. While Capote soared at The New Yorker, she treaded water. “Mockingbird,” published in 1960, dramatically changed all that, but she still hoped for a second act.

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In 1979 Capote invited her to accompany him to Kansas as his research assistant to report on a book about the murder of a farm family. Always drawn to crime stories, she proved to be his envoy into rural households otherwise wary of this exotic peacock of a man. Meticulous in her habits, she provided him with 150 pages of notes for “In Cold Blood.”

Nonetheless, Lee scoffed at his notion of the “nonfiction novel,” with its invented scenes and dialogue. Any Alabama book she might write would have to be one or the other. Initially, she intended nonfiction, then switched gears and labored to produce a novel titled “The Reverend.” Her frustration mounted despite Radney’s strong support for the project. “My agent wants pure gore & autopsies, my publisher wants another best-seller,” she wrote Peck, “and I want a clear conscience, in that I haven’t defrauded the reader.”

None of those scenarios saw the light of day. Because the evidence isn’t clear, Cep ultimately can’t explain why Lee stumbled. Perhaps her perfectionism wouldn’t let her settle for anything second-rate. Perhaps she felt cowed by the difficulties of penetrating black culture. Although she began to drink heavily during this period, Cep suggests that booze was more symptom than cause.

In any event, Lee gave up. “Somewhere along the line,” Cep writes, “she stopped doing two things destructive to her own well-being. One was drinking; the other was writing.” Thereafter, in the surviving letters from her final decades, she appears chatty, relaxed and serene.

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FURIOUS HOURS:

Murder, fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

By Casey Cep

Knopf, 314 pp., illustrated, $26.95

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the setting of the fatal shooting of the Rev. Willie Maxwell and that the writer Harper Lee was there. He was shot during a funeral; Lee attended the trial of accused shooter Robert Burns.

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Dan Cryer is the author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church.”