Interest in Harper Lee has to be pretty high for there to be a book about a book she never wrote.
And here one is.
Casey Cep's fascinating "Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee" is a carefully researched and lyrically composed story about Lee's intention to write a nonfiction book recounting a string of killings in rural Alabama in the 1970s.
Even now, three years after Lee's death and nearly 60 years after "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published, interest in Lee indeed remains high. A flurry of attention attended the 2015 release of Lee's novel, "Go Set a Watchman." A big-name adaptation of "Mockingbird" recently opened on Broadway.
Lee's fame stems from just one novel. Arriving in bookstores in 1960, "Mockingbird" went on to sell 40 million copies. Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for her semi-autobiographical story of a white small-town lawyer who defends a wrongly accused black man in Depression-era Alabama. The movie version, which won an Oscar for Gregory Peck, is an American classic.
As the decades passed and no second book by Lee appeared, she rarely commented on her writing and was loath to appear or speak in public.
Lee remains likewise unseen in the first half of "Furious Hours." Cep begins with the story of dapper Rev. Willie Maxwell, a black World War II veteran with a high school education who was accused of killing five family members, beginning with his (first) wife in 1970. He had life insurance policies on all of the deceased. They showed up dead, mostly on rural highways, in scenarios made to look like accidents.
Incredibly, despite numerous trials, no jury ever convicted Maxwell. The surrounding townsfolk came to dread him; many swore he must be a voodoo priest. He had an expert, relentless defense lawyer named Thomas Radney.
When Maxwell showed up at the funeral of a 16-year-old girl he almost certainly killed, a relative of the victim — Robert Burns — shot the Rev dead.
Burns' defense lawyer? Tom Radney — who won an acquittal despite 300 eyewitnesses.
Lee quietly showed up at Burns' trial. She spent months in Alabama, reporting on the trial. She kept copious notes, gathered a giant trove of transcripts and public records, and interviewed scores of people.
When she returned to her Spartan, book-filled apartment in New York, Lee faced the abyss between reporting and writing. Cep surveys obstacles that included loneliness, depression, episodes of heavy drinking and the deaths of Lee's invaluable "Mockingbird" editors. There was confusion about the ideal protagonist in the Maxwell murder story.
She reportedly worked diligently on the true-crime book until abandoning it after about 10 years. Lee never revealed how much of the book she had written.
Though an absence is at the center of "Furious Hours," the book never feels insubstantial. Cep likes detours, which well suits this kind of book. She tends to a Southern Gothic style, composing artfully as she writes about everything from the history of rural Alabama to Lee's longtime friendship with Truman Capote. This is Cep's first book. Let's hope it's not her last.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor.