By releasing Go Set a Watchman after fifty years of publishing silence, Harper Lee has sparked interest and speculation from major news outlets and bloggers alike about the possibility of more “rediscovered” manuscripts.
It has been widely reported that, starting in the 1980s, the media-shy author worked on either a nonfiction book or a crime novel about a Baptist preacher who was suspected of killing members of his family for insurance money, and who was then shot to death at the funeral of one of his alleged victims.
The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal have each published articles about the discovery of four manuscript pages found among the possessions of the Reverend’s former attorney, Tom Radney, who passed away in 2011.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “(The manuscript) contains handwritten notes, including the title on the first page and a final, handwritten paragraph on the fourth page. The handwriting does not appear to be Ms. Lee’s. (Radney’s granddaughter) said the handwriting bears some resemblance to Mr. Radney’s, but her grandfather could not have typed the document because he did not own a typewriter in the 1980s.”
Could these pages then have been written after the 1980s? During my 2008 interview with Radney, he told me he had remained in contact with Lee for years, and she always claimed to be working on the book. Perhaps he grew tired of waiting and decided to try and write a version himself. It would make sense to start the novel with the moment the Reverend first called, asking for help.
According to the Journal piece, “The story begins with a call from Mr. Maxwell to his attorney, here renamed Jonathan Larkin. It quickly jumps to a discussion of the attorney’s roots in Ireland.”
This strikes me as Radney’s story. In fact he began our discussion by telling a similar story, although he left out the historical background. The first paragraph of the interview transcript reads as follows:
Radney: Let me tell you what I think you need for a start as far as my involvement with Reverend Maxwell. I had never heard of Reverend Maxwell. I got a call about two in the morning, which is not unusual in law practice. Somebody’s in trouble, they call you. And he called me. He said, “Mr. Radney, they’re down here at my house accusing me of killing my wife. Would you come down and help me?” … I said, “Reverend, I don’t know you,” and I said, “I have to have a down payment.”
In my thriller novel, The Reverend , I wrote a similar scene based, in part, on Radney’s account given during our interview. For those who are interested, I will post the excerpt Thursday.
I find it hard to believe that Radney would attempt to edit something written by Harper Lee. It is far more likely that he was attempting to write down his own story.
Radney told me that Lee intended to begin her book in a different way.
“Harper thought the opening… ought to be the shooting of the Reverend, and then go back to tell the story. But the true facts are as soon as Robert Burns shot the Reverend there in that funeral home, the organist kept playing. People got under their seats and this one big fat lady… knocked out one of these windows that swings and got in, and couldn’t get in and couldn’t get out. She (Lee) thought that would be an excellent opening.”
Although perhaps entertaining, this beginning does not accurately reflect what happened after Robert Burns shot the Reverend at the funeral of his niece. Newspaper accounts of the scene mention none of these fanciful details. So either Radney’s imagination was running away from him, or Lee wasn’t planning to write a true crime novel after all.
Perhaps we will eventually find out. After years of refusing to publish another book, Go Set a Watchman is now setting records for sales. Lee’s attorney has hinted that more books could be forthcoming, and CNN.com recently reported an unconfirmed account that Lee had, in fact, completed The Reverend.
According to the CNN piece, “Wayne Flynt said he’d spoken with Lee’s sister before her death about the mystery manuscript.
“Her sister, Louise Conner, told me and my wife that (Lee) finished the novel sitting at her dining room table in Eufaula, Alabama. Louise said she read it and it was far better than ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘In Cold Blood,’” he said. “Somewhere out there at least one person, her sister, says there was a book far superior to either one of those classic books.”
Who knows if or when Harper Lee’s version of The Reverend will ever be found and published? In the meantime, as a kind of writing exercise, I have decided to write a chapter based Radney’s account. It posts here at Christamar.com next Sunday.