On Wednesday, author Casey Cep spoke to a crowd at Adelia M. Russell Library about her new novel “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee” about the Coosa County murders that occurred in 1976 and Lee’s attempt to write it.
Lee visited the Lake Martin area after hearing about multiple murders tied to Rev. Willie Maxwell and his murderer Robert Burns. Local attorney Tom Radney defended both Maxwell and Burns.
Cep focused her novel on Maxwell, Radney and Lee and most of her research was about Lee spending time in the area.
“I’ve talked about this book in a couple of places now but I know that for the people here it’s not just a story,” Cep said. “It really happened. I’m especially mindful that in a room like this that some of you all followed it in the papers and some of you all lost people near and dear to you. It’s a real story and it really happened.”
Cep read parts from her book including where former Sen. Maryon Pittman Allen attempted to write for a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” Lee while the latter was in Alexander City doing research.
Cep said she became interested in the case when she visited Monroeville to cover the release of Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” Cep said when she talked to many residents, they thought the novel was going to be Lee’s finished manuscript about the case.
“The book looks at these three characters, and again it’s three very different lives and three very different kinds of forces acting on them,” Cep said. “I was down there reporting and I got put in touch with the Radneys.”
Cep said a challenge of the novel was having biased historical records and relying on oral history. Cep said she got a full transcript of the court record from Burns’ trial.
Cep included in the novel a check from Lee to the court reporter for the transcript.
“I hope that if you sit with the book you find that it’s scrupulously researched and it’s filled from as much archival material as I could find and as many interviews as I could do, and when it comes to Harper Lee making sure this isn’t a footnote in her career as a writer,” Cep said. “That the time she spent here and the friends she made here from all sorts of different families are represented.”
Cep said she didn’t want the book to come off as sensational and she included a lot about the area’s history so readers could know what Alabama is like.
“For people who aren’t from Alabama you really get a sense of how greater historical forces can act on any given life and even people born in small towns so close to one another can have different opportunities and go to different places in the world,” Cep said.
The Radney family has four pages of what Cep said she thinks is a chapter of Lee’s manuscript.
“It looks to be the beginning of the book and it’s setting out, beating the bounds of the story,” Cep said. “They also have a page of her notes.”
Q&A attendees asked Cep why Lee never finished her novel and she said she was unsure. Cep said Lee sent letters to some saying she gave up and she was near the end to others.
“In terms of what we know right now, her literary archive is sealed so her apartment in New York was cleaned out,” Cep said. “Her sister’s house in Monroeville was cleaned out and she kept a room there. But hopefully we’ll know soon enough what’s in there, whether it’s those cassette tapes she recorded of some of you all, whether it’s additional manuscript pages, whether it’s the whole thing that can be put between two covers and published, same as my book, but I don’t want to mislead you.”