This was a pleasant surprise. I got hooked in the Prologue when I realized this story takes place in Alexander City, Alabama, a town I used to visit when I worked in the Atlanta office of Russell Corporation. Russell Mills started in Alexander City in 1902 and is the centerpoint of that town. Despite having traveled there 5 or so times, I was completely unaware of the story depicted in this book.
Author Casey Cep digs into the story of a serial killer plaguing Alexander City in the 1970s. The book is broken up into three parts. The first part is about the Reverend Willie Maxwell who has a bad habit of collecting vast sums of life insurance on family members who mysteriously die. The second part is about Maxwell’s former lawyer who later represents the vigilante who took the law into his own hands and killed Maxwell. The third part is about Harper Lee.
Harper Lee, author of the high school favorite To Kill a Mockingbird was fascinated with Maxwell’s story. She was also friends (since childhood when they were neighbors) with Truman Capote, who had written a “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. Harper Lee had assisted Capote with research, interviews, and note-taking for his famous book. Harper Lee was interested in writing her own account of the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell.
The problem is that Harper Lee never wrote the book. Why not? Casey seeks to answer that question while detailing the life of the very private author.
The twists and turns in the book got nearly unbelievable at times. I mentioned a few above with Maxwell’s long-time lawyer later defending the man who shot him and Harper Lee’s friendship with Truman Capote. As the story unfolded, I kept commenting “No Way!” to myself. Another amazing part was when Harper Lee befriended a much-younger Alexander City journalist and had him visit her in NYC to show him around. What an experience for that young man!
This was a story where truth was definitely stranger than fiction. It reminded me a lot of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.
I loved Casey’s style where if a tangent warranted more information, she’d dig into it instead of glossing over the topic. I loved that and learned a lot. One example was life insurance. She could have just stated that Maxwell was getting wealthy collecting life insurance on those he killed, but she took a few pages to go into the history of life insurance. I found that fascinating and you got a little glimpse into the mind of the author and her desire to keep digging.
In many ways, Casey Cep wrote the book Harper Lee never did. It was a beautiful tribute to the people of Alexander City. It was a beautiful tribute to Harper Lee. But it didn’t gloss over the bad in either. I loved that Casey has a firm grasp of scripture. It greatly enhanced the book. It was thrilling. I had a hard time putting it down. I really hope she writes more books in the future.