Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.
Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.
As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.
One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.
For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.
In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.
Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.
Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.
Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.
The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake. An excellent book – highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.
(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)