Monday, July 13, 2015

Writing in the Shadow of Harper Lee

In March of 2015, Casey N. Cep published a piece in The New Yorker called "Harper Lee's Abandoned True Crime Novel."  The following post details some of my experiences researching the same story. 

Back in the 1960s and '70s in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie Maxwell, a black Southern
Baptist preacher, was accused of killing various members of his family for insurance money.  After his first wife was found dead, Maxwell escaped prosecution by marrying the state’s primary witness against him. Maxwell later collected insurance money on her too, and on his brother, and on his nephew. 

The Reverend’s lawyer, Tom Radney, won case after case for Maxwell due to lack of evidence.  Meanwhile, rumors surrounding Maxwell and the “voodoo magic” that supposedly protected him from prosecution escalated, and reporters played up the angle to sell newspapers.  Finally, after the daughter of the Reverend’s third wife was found dead underneath his car (the Reverend claimed she was under there changing a tire when it collapsed on her neck), vigilante justice succeeded where the law had failed.

At the conclusion of the girl’s funeral, her uncle, Robert Burns, turned to face the Reverend, who was sitting in the pew behind him, and said, “You have mistreated my family long enough.” He pulled out a pistol and fired into the Reverend’s face and chest, killing him instantly.   

After checking with the state bar association, Radney represented his former client’s assassin. In 1979, he successfully argued a case in front of an all-white jury in Alabama in which a black man shot and killed a preacher in front of three hundred witnesses.  During the trial, there was much heated argument over whether or not the jury should hear what Burns said in the patrol car on the way to jail following the shooting.  “I’m glad I did it,” he had said, “and I’d do it again.”  Radney won the argument and the trial.  Burns was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.  

When I interviewed Tom Radney in 2008, he told me what he remembered about Maxwell and he provided me with a transcript of the highly entertaining trial of his killer. (The transcript includes a section in which the prosecutor, in open court, tells Radney to go to hell.)  For the most part, however, I heard unverifiable details of barely remembered cases.  Other than the transcript, Radney claimed to have no documentation to share with me because, he said, he had given it all to Harper Lee.

It turns out I wasn’t the first person that hoped to turn the Maxwell story into the next In Cold Blood.  Harper Lee helped Truman Capote research and edit that book and she apparently hoped to duplicate its success in the 1980s when she went to Alexander City to write a book about Maxwell.

“The problem,” Radney said, “with getting information is this: Harper has files that thick.”  He made a gesture with his thumb and forefinger.  “She won’t give ‘em to me… She may have burned ‘em.  I don’t know.”

It is an understatement to say that I was very interested in learning whether or not Harper Lee intended to release a book on this subject.  According to Radney, she spent close to a year in Alexander City researching Maxwell, and she continued to work on the book after she left, each year telling him over the telephone, “I’m sure it’s gonna come out by May.”  If she was going to release that book, I saw no point in continuing.  I am just smart enough to know that I will never win a competition with a national treasure.  Radney assured me that this was not a problem.

 “Forget it… That book will never be written unless you write it.”

I heard many plausible theories about why Lee never published a manuscript.  She didn’t want to turn out a book that was merely a catalogue of insurance scams.  She worried about failing to live up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird.  One friend of Lee’s told me, “When your first book wins a Pulitzer, and it’s rumored that Truman Capote… was the real tour de force on it, your second book better win a Pulitzer or the rumors will get a life.” 

I figured if Harper Lee wasn’t going to publish a Maxwell book, there was no reason why she wouldn’t share the information she gathered with me.  I needed to track down those files.

“You can forget that,” Radney said.  “If you called Harper Lee, she’d call you a goddamned son of a bitch and hang up the phone.”

Harper Lee doesn’t speak to a lot of people, most notably members of the press.  People I spoke with told me she makes friends enter into a confidentiality agreement.  Said one former reporter who covered Maxwell, “one of the reasons we’ve been friends this long is because I don’t discuss her with people. It’s kind of a condition of friendship.”

I never found anyone that would speak to her on my behalf, even to find out if she still had Radney’s files.  The same reporter told me, “I’m not gonna approach her for you or anyone else.  Don’t feel singled out… the only people who will talk about her are people who don’t know her.”  I took this to mean, if they knew her before, once they talked about her publicly, they wouldn’t know her again.

He pointed me in the direction of an Auburn circuit court judge as a potential source of information, a former lawyer for one of the insurance companies that once battled Maxwell in court.  In a response to one of my letters the judge told me, “I suppose you have heard that Harper Lee has written a novel about the Maxwell case which is to be published after her death.” Perhaps, I would have to compete with Harper Lee after all.

In early January of 2009, I made one last-ditch effort to find Radney’s lost documentation.  This time, I went straight to the source.   I sent my letter to Harper Lee in care of her sister Alice’s law firm.  Less than a week later, I received a reply.

“When I was in Alexander City all those years ago, I found a mountain of rumors and tall stories to a molehill of fact.  I trust that time has settled Rev. Maxwell’s dust, and I wish you well.”  The brief note was written on a stationary card bearing her monogram and signed by Harper Lee.

This cryptic response left me with more questions than answers.  Did she still retain a molehill of documentation?  Did she write a novelized version that she intended to publish after her death?  Were there still surviving manuscript pages waiting to be found a la Go Set a Watchman?  Was she deliberately holding out on me?

Like everyone else, I suppose, I will just have to wait and see.

Christamar Varicella is the author of the thriller novel, The Reverend.

Related Articles: Paper Chase: Radney family has questions as Lee’s new book debuts (From the Alexander City Outlook)

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