Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
by Casey Cep
William Heinemann, £20

In 1958, before Harper Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird, she listed the other books she intended to write: “1. a race novel. 2. A Victorian novel 3. What Mr Graham Greene calls An Entertainment 4. I’m gonna tear Monroeville to pieces (1958 Monroeville) 5. A Novel of the United Nations 6. India, 1910”.

So many books, yet only one of them came to anything, albeit winning international acclaim. After the appearance of Mockingbird, in 1960, when she was 34, Nelle Harper Lee was shocked – very possibly appalled – at the attention she received. Perhaps because of her worldwide acclaim, or maybe because she ran out of inspiration, what had started as a sensationally successful literary career slowly seemed to fizzle out. Was she, in the wounding words of fellow southerner Eudora Welty, merely “a one-hit wonder”?

Furious Hours, an accomplished and compelling debut by American writer Casey Cep, tells the story of a book that Lee intended to be her follow-up, yet failed to finish. By the time Lee was, quite literally, on the case, 17 barren years had passed since her brilliant debut. In the interim she had written a few profiles and pieces, less than most journalists would rattle out in a fortnight. Drinking heavily, and plainly troubled, she perked up when she heard of a gothic serial murderer in her home state of Alabama.

This, she might have thought, writes Cep, could be her riposte to her friend Truman Capote’s nonfiction bestseller, In Cold Blood. That account of the brutal murder of a middle-class Kansas family, which Lee had helped him to write, famously launched what is now known as the New Journalism. It would appear that, unlike Capote’s speculative and often fictionalised work, Lee intended that hers would be scrupulously accurate, based wholly on facts.

The story that had caught her imagination seemed tailor-made for this chronicler of the south’s tensions between the black and white communities in a period when civil rights were far from universally acknowledged. Between 1970 and 1977, in the town of Alexander City, a part-time black preacher and former army engineer, the Reverend Willie Maxwell, was widely thought to have murdered five of his relatives: two wives, his brother, step-daughter and nephew. Bodies of these victims were found either beaten to death, or crushed by a jacked-up car, or in mysterious circumstances that autopsies could not explain. The only undeniable fact was that The Reverend – which was to be the title of Lee’s proposed book – stood to gain from insurance policies he had taken out on all of them. For two of these he was put on trial but, thanks to the genius of his swaggering white lawyer, Big Tom Radney, he was acquitted. Rumour, however, condemned him, with many in the neighbourhood suspecting he was practising voodoo.

At the funeral of his last victim, his 16-year-old step-daughter Shirley Ann, the deceased’s adoptive uncle, Robert Lewis Burns, shot the Reverend point blank. Big Tom Radney took on Burns’s defence, despite having been the Reverend’s lawyer, and managed to get him acquitted too.

The tragedy caused by this catalogue of killing was the bedrock of a sensational tale, to which Lee dedicated years of research, attending Burns’s trial, and interviewing him and countless witnesses and townsfolk. Eventually defeated by the fog of myths surrounding the story, and the unreliability of almost all the witnesses, she began to turn it into a novel. Then without explanation she simply stopped writing. Until shortly before her death in 2016, when her first novel Go Set A Watchman was published, no other book appeared under her name. The fanfare with which that work was greeted was pure hype, this being the very imperfect draft from which Mockingbird was eventually drawn.

Cep has had access to all the files Lee used to compile her book, many of which were given to her by Big Tom Radney, a complicated but charismatic figure. She has also read the first chapter of The Reverend, though whether more lies in the novelist’s sealed literary archive is unknown.

All this is gold-dust for a writer, and Cep has used it well. Composing her book as a triptych – The Reverend, The Lawyer, The Writer – she draws a vivid portrait of the characters embroiled in these dreadful crimes, the community they affected, and the rekindling of Lee’s writing they promised. Her tone is doubtless intended as an echo of Lee’s biting insouciance, and for the most part she carries off this knowing, jaunty voice. Perhaps inevitably, the first two parts are far more fascinating, telling as they do a story few know. When she comes to Lee, old ground is retraced, seriously slowing momentum. Flashes of Lee’s wit brighten the pages – the Reverend, she wrote, “might not have believed in what he preached, he might not have believed in voodoo, but he had a profound and abiding belief in insurance” – but even this cannot prevent the sensation of a dying fall.

Cep takes her leave of Nelle Harper Lee in her sheltered housing community, long since resigned – and consequently far happier – to giving up writing. Her last chapter on the aged, never wholly fulfilled writer feels almost as sorrowful a story as that on which Lee had once so eagerly embarked in the hope, once more, of finding her voice.