Cep’s debut recounts how a series of rural Alabama murders inspired Harper Lee to write again, years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Death surrounded the Rev. Willie Maxwell. Following his wife’s mysterious murder in 1970, four more of Maxwell’s family members were inexplicably found dead within seven years. Locals blamed voodoo, but a deeper investigation pointed to fraud: Maxwell, said Lee, “had a profound and abiding belief in insurance,” and he collected thousands in death benefits. He was a suspect in his wife’s case (charged and curiously acquitted), but years later, before the police could make another arrest, he was killed in a public fit of vigilante justice. In a further twist, the same lawyer who helped clear Maxwell’s name decided to represent his killer. Lee, still uncomfortable over the embellishments of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, wondered “whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired, and whether it could be as successful as the far-bending accounts of her contemporaries.” In this effortlessly immersive narrative, Cep engagingly traces how Lee found the case and began—and ultimately abandoned—a project she called The Reverend. Cep writes with the accessible erudition of podcast-style journalism; she breathes not only life, but style into her exhaustive, impressively researched narrative. She relies heavily on the backstories of each of her narrative threads, which transforms her book into a collection of connected preambles. Short histories of fraud, Southern politics, and urban development take shape alongside a condensed biography of Lee. This kind of storytelling may feel disjointed, but there’s a reason for it: By fully detailing the crimes before Lee even appears, Cep allows readers to see the case through Lee’s eyes and recognize its nascent literary potential. Above all, this is a book about inspiration and how a passion for the mysteries of humanity can cause an undeniable creative spark.
A well-tempered blend of true crime and literary lore.