By Michael Lewis
Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
By Casey Cep
Harper Lee was funny and profane and hard-drinking and seemingly uninterested in the role she created for herself: the famous writer who refused to write. She’d been 34 years old when she published “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It had sold several millions of copies — over 40 million to date — and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, plus an Oscar for Gregory Peck in 1963. Then she’d gone silent. She maintained her silence for the next 50-odd years, until her death in 2016. If she was seeking to optimize other people’s interest in her she couldn’t have adopted a better strategy. As the crowds formed at the front of the theater waiting for her show, she’d slipped out the back and told her driver to take her as far away as she could get. “Some people only have one book in them,” she would sometimes explain, in her later years, when in the mood.
But she didn’t always feel that way. Back in the 1970s a story had caught her eye. A true-crime story, that belonged on the shelf more or less created by “In Cold Blood.” She’d helped Truman Capote research that book and would now write her own. She worked for years on the thing, or said she did, but the book never got written. Until now. “Furious Hours” is that book, with a twist. Casey Cep has picked up where Lee left off: She’s written the true-crime story that Harper Lee never figured out how to write. But she’s used it as an excuse to study Lee herself — and the reasons for her long silence.
It takes Cep about five pages to eliminate from the reader’s mind the possibility that the source of Harper Lee’s literary problems was lack of material. This story is just too good. Its protagonist is a black preacher named Willie Maxwell. He was born in rural Alabama in 1925 and grew up without anyone recording anything about him. “A silence characteristic of the historical record for African-Americans in that time and place,” Cep writes. Maxwell joined the Army and served as an aviation engineer on a base in Utah during World War II. After the war, he re-enlisted, driving trucks for the Army Corps of Engineers in the Pacific theater, rising to the level of sergeant and earning a Good Conduct Medal. In 1947, he returned to Alabama, married, took one job in a textile mill and another as a sharecropper and somehow had time to spare to become a Baptist preacher. “Reverend Maxwell,” people called him.
Eventually fired from his job at the textile mill, he found new work pulping wood and drilling rock — messy, dangerous tasks. “One of the most outstanding, dependable employees I had in every way,” a former boss, who was later elected the town mayor, said of him. At the end of the day the other workers were covered in sweat and dust. Not the Reverend, who astonished his co-workers with how quickly and beautifully he cleaned up. “His shoes were always polished, his suits were always black and a tie almost always accentuated his crisp white shirts,” Cep writes. He was a man to whom nothing seemed to stick.
Then, on Aug. 3, 1970, in a car on the side of a country road, the police found his wife’s body. “She was swollen and bruised, her face covered with lacerations, her jawbone chipped, her nose dislocated; she was missing part of her left ear, which the police eventually found on the floorboard of the back seat,” Cep writes. Coroners later decided that someone had tried and failed to strangle Mary Lou Maxwell, and so had simply beaten her to death. But it was impossible to say for sure who that someone was. Whoever had made a mess of the corpse had cleaned up beautifully after himself.
All signs pointed to the Reverend. The married woman next door claimed that Mary Lou had come to her house after 10 the night of the murder to report that her husband’s car had broken down and that he wanted Mary Lou to pick him up. It turned out that the Reverend had lady friends, and that he made a habit of spending a lot more on them than he earned. He was carrying a large mortgage and was behind on his car payments and his many accounts with local retailers. His wife had no money but she did have an astonishing number of life-insurance policies. The Reverend had bought them and named himself as the sole beneficiary. One of the bigger ones he had purchased so soon before her death that he hadn’t even needed to pay the $12 to renew it.
It took a surprisingly long time for the state to indict him and a surprisingly short time for the jury to declare his innocence. At his trial the married woman next door recanted her testimony, and then, after the untimely death of her own spouse, married the Reverend. Likely she never knew that in their first and only year of marriage, the Reverend took out at least 17 different insurance policies on her life. By the time his second wife’s body was found in yet another car on yet another country road, the Reverend had collected more than half a million in today’s dollars. “For the Reverend Willie Maxwell,” Cep writes, “becoming a widower was proving to be a lucrative business.”
From there, the well-insured bodies pile up and the story gathers steam. Its engine was this truly bizarre glitch in the free market: the willingness of life-insurance companies to sell policies to someone other than the insured, without the person whose death was suddenly of great value ever knowing about it. The Reverend took out policies on what amounted to a diversified portfolio of family members: “Among others, his wife, his mother, his brothers, his aunts, his nieces, his nephews and the infant daughter he had only just legitimated.”
His uncanny ability to predict the often grisly deaths of relatives, while leaving no trace of himself at the scenes of their deaths, made him a local legend. The fears ran high and the rumors flew fast, and everyone around him except the poor women who kept agreeing to marry him felt sure that the Reverend was some kind of voodooist. But he was more like a card counter in a casino. Or like one of those Goldman Sachs traders who, in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, bought insurance on subprime mortgage bonds they had themselves designed to fail — and made a fortune when that failure occurred. They sensed that neither the markets nor the law would ever catch up to them — and neither did. The Reverend sensed that too.
And he was right. A bunch of murders in Alabama never got solved. Justice for the Reverend took a different form. But let me stop here. It’s one measure of just how rich Casey Cep’s material is, and how artfully she handles it, that I have given away only about a tenth of the interest and delight contained within just the first third or so of her book. She reminded me all over again how much of good storytelling is leading the reader to want to know the things you are about to tell him, while still leaving him to feel that his interest was all his idea. By the time I got to the section on Harper Lee, I wanted to know more about her than I’ve ever thought I wanted to know — and I didn’t start the book incurious about her. “Furious Hours” builds and builds until it collides with the writer who saw the power of Maxwell’s story, but for some reason was unable to harness it. It lays bare the inner life of a woman who had a world-class gift for hiding.
Lee spent years working on her second book. “The Reverend,” she planned to call it. Of her main character she wrote, in a letter to a journalist, at least one great line: “He 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 after a decade of at least pretending to work on her book, she finally gave up and let it go. Cep has a theory why. She explains as well as it is likely ever to be explained why Lee went silent after “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (The clue’s in Cep’s title.) And it’s here, in her descriptions of another writer’s failure to write, that her book makes a magical little leap, and it goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.