Everyone has their favorite book as a child. You know, the one that you read over and over again with a flashlight under your blankets way past your bedtime. For Casey Cep, that book was Harper Lee’s famous “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
However, Cep’s infatuation with Lee did not stop at her childhood. The book that made Lee withdraw from the public eye took Cep to Alabama to explore the town “To Kill A Mockingbird” was based on, have articles published in The New Yorker explaining the different sides of Lee and eventually to Lee’s unpublished manuscript.
That manuscript became the catalyst for Cep’s first book titled “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.” Next week, the author is coming to Midtown Scholar to share the story that Lee never finished.
“Any material from her is precious, and anything she touched feels miraculous to me,” Cep said about Lee’s manuscript. “No matter what writer or artist you are writing about, any historical piece of them feels almost godlike. It’s truly a miracle that it survived.”
The book begins with the story of Willie Maxwell, better known as “The Reverend.” Between the later 1960s and 1970s, five of the Reverend’s family members were found dead under “suspicious circumstances.” Rumors spread through the town. Some called it voodoo, the detectives called it insurance fraud. No matter what they called it, the Reverend was raking in thousands of dollars in life insurance money, and no one could stop him. Until someone did.
During the funeral of the Reverend’s last alleged victim, his step-daughter Shirley Ann Ellington, the girl’s uncle, Robert Burns, shot the Reverend three times in the head at point-blank range.
Less than a year after Maxwell’s murder, his lawyer, Tom Radney, convinced the famously reclusive Harper Lee to write a book about the six murders. She read about the murders in the newspaper, but it was Radney’s eagerness that made her start writing her first book almost two decades after “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
However, the only thing Radney got to see was four typed pages by Lee. By the time Radney passed away in 2011, the book still was not finished, nor was it finished when Lee passed away in 2016. Many gave up on ever seeing the book published, but the Radney family did not.
Enter Cep. After getting in contact with the Radney family, Cep wrote a piece for The New Yorker about Lee’s unfinished book in 2015. But after publishing it, more people who knew Radney or the Reverend started showing up, and Cep knew she had to tell the whole story.
“It’s thrilling to have my book out in the world,” she said. “Such an honor to get to talk with so many readers who are as intrigued by the story and its characters as I am.”
Even though “Furious Hours” was published a little over a month ago, Cep is already working on a second book that she is sure Lee would appreciate.
“It’s one of the best books of the year, hands down,” said Alex Brubaker, manager at Midtown Scholar. “Casey Cep delivers one of the most riveting true crime stories you’ve likely never heard about.”
See Casey Cep next Tuesday, June 18, at 7 p.m. at Midtown Scholar Bookstore, 1302 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information visit www.midtownscholar.com/featured-events.