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Harper Lee’s Abandoned True-Crime Manuscript: Casey Cep Discusses the Story Behind ‘The Reverend’

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Harper Lee was no one-hit wonder, as the past few years have made increasingly clear. Though the author of To Kill a Mockingbird was famously reticent about her work before she died in 2016, the surprise (if controversial) publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 revealed the author had written a first draft of Mockingbird that was distinct from the finished product in many respects. Just two years later, writer Wayne Flynt published a portion of the author’s lively, prolific correspondence in Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship With Harper Lee.

Now, in Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, author Casey Cep is spotlighting another fascinating but forgotten project: Lee’s unfinished true-crime book about the murder, during a church service, of an Alabama reverend who was also a suspected serial killer and insurance fraudster.

To report The Reverend, as Lee called her manuscript, the then-52-year-old author traveled to Alexander City, Alabama, where she rented a house, interviewed acquaintances of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, secured court documents, and struck up a friendship with a charismatic lawyer, Tom Radney, who had once defended Maxwell and later represented his killer. She drew some of her reporting techniques from her work with friend Truman Capote on his true-crime opus In Cold Blood, but also sought a higher standard of accuracy than Capote had settled for, and ultimately grew frustrated with the preponderance of hearsay and rumor in Alexander City. After years of working on the book, she seemingly abandoned The Reverend—though there are some who still believe that, as with Go Set a Watchman, there is a hidden copy of the final text stashed somewhere.

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