Extreme Gothic Americana

James Lasdun

  • Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
    Heinemann, 314 pp, £20.00, May, ISBN 978 1 78515 073 9

In August 1970 Mary Lou Maxwell, a seamstress married to a Reverend Willie Maxwell, was found beaten and strangled to death in her Ford Fairlane on a quiet road near her home outside Alexander City, Alabama. The reverend, who had purchased several life insurance policies on his wife, was tried for her murder but acquitted after their neighbour, Dorcas Anderson, recanted some earlier testimony and provided him with an alibi. She and the reverend got married shortly thereafter. In February 1972 the reverend’s brother was found at the side of another nearby road, dead of a heart attack brought on by massive alcohol poisoning. The reverend had insurance policies on him too. Seven months later, Dorcas herself was found dead in a car. She had no serious injuries apart from a fractured hyoid bone, which can sometimes indicate strangulation but can also be broken during autopsies; the medical examiner recorded ‘acute respiratory distress’ as the cause of death. Insurance policies? Check: 17 of them. Alongside his preaching, the enterprising reverend ran a pulpwooding crew in which his nephew, James Hicks, was employed until he quit, nervous of his uncle’s increasingly sinister reputation. Quitting didn’t do him any good. In February 1976 Hicks, who was 22, was found dead in his Pontiac Firebird with some small cuts but – according to the autopsy report – nothing ‘which would adequately account for the death of this subject’. A couple of local men told an officer of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation that the reverend had offered them money to help smother Hicks (they’d refused), but the coroner’s finding of natural causes ruled out a murder charge. In due course the reverend submitted insurance claims on his nephew to the Beneficial National, the Vulcan, the John Hancock and the World Wide insurance companies.

The reverend, who was black, was assisted in his macabre actuarial pursuits, as well as in his legal battles, by a white lawyer called Tom Radney. Exploiting the vulnerabilities of an insurance industry that in its eagerness to sell policies had neglected basic fraud prevention, Radney leveraged his client’s luck with dead bodies and live juries to lucrative effect. He made enough money to build himself a fancy new office next to the Alexander courthouse, while the reverend was able to indulge his taste for three-piece suits and to buy expensive gifts for his mistresses. It came at a price, for both of them. The reverend lost most (though not all) of his preaching jobs as the mysteriously deceased relatives piled up and rumours began to circulate that he was practising voodoo. Radney suffered guilt by association. But a spectacular twist to the story changed everything for both of them.

The reverend had married a third time after Dorcas’s death. His new wife, Ophelia Burns, brought an adopted daughter (actually her niece), Shirley Ann, into the household. On a June evening in 1977 the 16-year-old took off for some reason, and, well: Ford Torino, roadside, insurance. This time the scene was staged to make it look as if the girl had been crushed by the car while changing a tyre, but her hands were clean and the lug nuts were under her body not beside it. The death was officially declared a murder and the police planned to charge the reverend as soon as the coroner’s report was certified. But Shirley Ann’s funeral took place before the report came in, and, as the ceremony was ending, a man called Robert Burns – Shirley Ann’s uncle – took out a Beretta and shot the reverend three times in the head. There was no insurance, but Radney was quick to see fresh opportunities. Burns had done what half the town dreamed of doing, and few people wanted to see him convicted. Who better to defend him, and thereby reinstate himself in the town’s good graces, than Tom Radney?

So it was that the reverend’s lawyer came to defend the man accused of his murder. Three hundred people had witnessed the shooting, so there was little point in denying it. Instead, Radney had Burns diagnosed with ‘transient situational disorder’ and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Having spent years defending the reverend as a good man afflicted by bad luck, he now set about refashioning him as a fiend whose deeds would drive any decent person temporarily insane. He got the verdict he wanted, and after six weeks in a state mental facility Burns was set free.

Up to this point, the story belongs more or less to the realm of extreme gothic Americana. The life insurance plot seems preposterous even for the period (James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity had been published three decades earlier) and the fact that it happens to be true merely adds to the sense of rich but special-case weirdness. The voodoo business seems to have been taken quite seriously by the townsfolk, with rumours circulating that the reverend hung white chickens upside down from his pecan trees to keep unwanted spirits away, and that he could turn himself into a black cat. One can imagine the tale packaged as a Coen brothers movie or a podcast by the makers of S-Town. It may seem partly to be a story about race, but it doesn’t fall easily into any of the standard narratives: if anything, it goes out of its way to confound them. Its twisted moral structure inverts the usual courtroom sympathies, making the reader hope for a possibly unjust conviction in the case of one of the accused black men, and a definitely incorrect acquittal in the other. Their shared white champion did have a brief career as an anti-segregationist in the Alabama State Senate as a young man, but he was too tepid and temporising to be a civil rights hero: he avoided meeting the Freedom Riders when they arrived in Alabama, and under pressure from repeated death threats he eventually quit politics for the law. By the time he joined forces with the reverend, his interest in the question of race seems to have been limited to how he could exploit it to his advantage. In one of his many legal manoeuvres on behalf of the reverend, he managed to get the prominent black civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who had represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, to portray his client as a victim of discrimination by the insurance companies – who were indeed notorious for cheating their black customers – in order to compel them to pay up. A murkier entanglement of principle and cynicism would be hard to imagine.

Some writers about race relish this kind of murk: Chester Himes’s Cotton Comes to Harlem features a proto-reverend in the person of its swindler-preacher, Reverend Deke O’Malley. But it comes as a surprise that the writer who was actually present at the Burns trial in 1978, and who spent much of the next ten years wrestling with a book on the whole affair, was Harper Lee, creator of the saintly Atticus Finch. Whatever the subliminal politics of To Kill a Mockingbird may be, no one has ever attributed its sales figures of forty million to chiaroscuro moral effects or an interest in ambiguous motives. With Lee’s entrance, the story takes a sharp turn from the criminal to the literary. What was her interest in this case? Why did she stick at the project for so long? Why did she abandon it?

Casey Cep has published excellent pieces in the New Yorker on Lee’s post-Mockingbird (and posthumous) career. She outlined the Maxwell/Burns story in a 2015 article, and Furious Hours is that story fleshed out. Padded out too, it must be said. The book lacks the incisiveness of Cep’s articles and suffers from what seems an anxiety about some of the unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions it raises; it flings up quantities of data-dust about marginally relevant subjects as if in the hope of concealing its more significant gaps. A survey of the insurance business going back to the Fire of London doesn’t seem crucial to an understanding of the reverend’s deadly scams, and certainly doesn’t get us inside his enigmatic head. A rehash of Governor George Wallace’s political career does little to illuminate the equivocations of Radney’s. The book never quite resolves the problem of its related but separate subjects (as witnessed by its laborious subtitle), and wobbles tonally between academic dryness and a more down-home style (‘the rumours about him grew taller than loblolly pines’) as if fitfully trying to channel Lee at her folksiest.

But it’s fascinating all the same, and in spite of all the extraneous material Cep puts forward a persuasive set of conjectures about this key passage in Lee’s long and eloquent silence. Of all the books Lee didn’t write after Mockingbird, this would seem to be the one that came closest to escaping her self-censoring vigilance. Much of the relevant biographical information is well known, but it takes on new meaning in the light of this project. It’s interesting to go back to the period in 1959 between delivery and publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, when Lee agreed to be the ‘assistant researchist’ on the gruesome true crime story that her childhood friend Truman Capote was writing for the New Yorker. Without Lee, Capote might have had trouble getting the people of Holcomb, Kansas to open up about the slaughtered Clutter family. Lee was the daughter of Methodists very like the Clutters, and she was on their cultural wavelength. She was low-key, empathetic, knowledgable about the law – which she’d studied at university – and, unlike Capote, didn’t receive police officers in a pink negligée. Cep makes a case that she was the better observer, or at least the more thorough one. When she and Capote returned to Kansas for the trial in 1960 she took detailed notes on the jurors; he took none. And when the time came for him to expand the article into In Cold Blood, she gave him 150 typed pages on everything from the postal workers of Holcomb to the size of Nancy Clutter’s mirror. Her high regard for facts put her at odds with Capote’s notion of a ‘non-fiction novel’, with its latitude for novelistic invention, and though she never publicly criticised his methods, her feelings come through clearly in letters to friends. ‘Truman’s having long ago put fact out of business,’ she wrote to one, ‘had made me despair of “factual” accounts of anything.’

Cep argues that Lee was attracted to the Maxwell/Burns case partly because it presented an opportunity to write a story of high crime and small town life that would compete with In Cold Blood while implicitly rebuking its fast and loose way with the ‘factual’. Cep also suggests that the whiteness and wealth of the Clutter family – which made them highly unrepresentative of the actual victims of most violent crime – was instrumental in Lee’s choice of a story where the victims were all black and poor. This may be so, though there is little direct evidence. More interesting, in the way it examines the mysteries of writerly compulsion, is Cep’s third argument, which has to do with Lee’s late-life novel, Go Set a Watchman. As anyone who follows these things will know, Go Set a Watchman was in fact her first novel, an initial pass at the material that, at the urging of Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff, underwent a radical transformation to become To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus Finch is presented from two angles: the young Scout’s (as in Mockingbird), but also that of the grown-up Scout, who returns home for a visit to find herself struggling to reconcile her worshipful childhood image of her father with the distasteful truth apparent to her older self – that despite his commitment to justice in the courtroom, Atticus is a racist. With the excision of the older, more sceptical Scout, Atticus could be presented to the world in Mockingbird as a figure of unimpeachable high-mindedness, offering liberal white readers a flattering reflection of themselves – Gregory Peck, in short. A cult was born. The once progressive-seeming racial politics of Mockingbird are antiquated today, and it is a great book in spite of them. Go Set a Watchman is definitely not a great book, but it is an interestingly agonised one.

Cep finds plausible grounds for suspecting that Lee had mixed feelings about the simplification of her original concept, and that she never quite forgave herself for agreeing to it, despite the sales. The case of Reverend Maxwell, Cep argues, offered Lee a chance to go back to the kinds of complexity around race that she had been steered away from in Mockingbird, but this time as a chronicler of unalterable fact. Here, in addition to a black vigilante hailed as a hero, were ‘an alleged black serial killer who was also the victim of violence; a crusading white attorney who was also profiting off black death; crimes that looked like murder but were mostly tried like fraud’. Here too was a small city in Alabama with an atmosphere conducive to rumours of malignant magic just like those surrounding Boo Radley (‘Radley pecans would kill you’), except that in this case they circulated mostly among the black community and arose out of a well-founded sense of danger.

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If so much of the material really was in her comfort zone – or rather in her zone of preferred discomfort – why was Lee unable to write the book? Cep pursues a number of possible explanations. Lee had a drink problem. She was afraid of being sued for libel. She may have been warned off the story by the reverend’s widow, who was almost certainly an accomplice in his schemes. But Lee hardly seems the type to be intimidated, and her boozing sounds modest by the high standards of the time. It seems more likely that she was simply stumped by a paucity of the kind of hard facts, especially concerning the black characters, that she needed to build her narrative. The reverend’s life was thinly documented despite his growing notoriety. He made listless-sounding denials of guilt from time to time, but otherwise has the averted posture of a person bound to a terrible destiny, with no apparent interest in accounting for it to himself or anyone else. It seems he wasn’t even personally interested in the dark powers attributed to him. Possibly lamenting this, Lee joked drily to a family friend: ‘He might not have believed in voodoo, but he had a profound and abiding belief in insurance.’ Which may be all there is to be said about him. As for Burns, the avenging angel, he too seems to have been less interesting than his role might suggest: Lee interviewed him twice during her months in Alexander City, but there was clearly no prospect of her forming the kind of perversely productive attachment to him that Capote formed towards his killer, Perry Smith. The abundantly documented (and eagerly co-operative) white character, Radney, does embody some of the contradictory attributes of the original portrait of Atticus, and there is no doubt that he intrigued Lee. But he appears to have wearied her, finally, with his oversized ego: ‘He seemed to see himself as a cross between Atticus Finch and Robert Redford,’ she told a friend. At a deeper level there may also have been, as Cep suggests, ‘a certain uncomfortable moral muddiness concerning black criminality in a criminally racist society’. This was not a circle that Lee was likely to be able to square, however eager she was to try. Unease at what we now call cultural appropriation may have stirred in her, or at least a dawning awareness of the limited purchase any white writer is going to have on the inward aspects of black lives. She was good – but she wasn’t Ralph Ellison.

Whatever the reason, three years into the project, Lee was flailing. ‘My agent wants pure gore and autopsies,’ she wrote to Peck, ‘my publisher wants another bestseller, and I want a clear conscience, in that I haven’t defrauded the reader.’ At a certain point she seems to have conceded defeat as far as turning the material into a work of conventional non-fiction. A Capote-style ‘non-fiction novel’ was presumably out of the question, given her views on the form, but according to a piece Cep wrote for the New Yorker in 2015, Lee did toy with the idea of an actual novel based on the events. She apparently sent the opening pages of this novel to Radney, and the Radney family showed them to Cep on the condition that she not quote from them. Two minor but intriguing codas append this revelation. The first is that in an early proof version of Furious Hours, Cep discussed and indeed quoted from these pages. The second is that in the final version, the quotes have disappeared. The passages are, as she acknowledges, ‘clunky’ (to say the least) but they are all we have and it seems a shame to lose them. Whether any more of it remains is unclear. If it ever did, my guess is that, like other post-Mockingbird manuscripts, it went down the incinerator chute on the landing Lee shared with Daryl Hall and John Oates outside her Upper East Side apartment – but it is at least clear that Lee wasn’t satisfied with it. In 1987 a writer came to her expressing his interest in the story of the reverend; she told him he was welcome to it.

‘Success is like some horrible disaster,’ Malcolm Lowry wrote. Lowry’s last years, lost in the ever ramifying project with which he hoped to follow up his own bestseller, make terrifying reading for anyone who has ever been stuck while writing a book. Lee’s spell in the labyrinth assuredly took its toll, but she survived it, moving on gracefully into what appears to have been a reasonably cheerful old age. There is some suspicion that her agent, Tonja Carter, took advantage of her then ailing client in securing her agreement to publish Go Set a Watchman. But if the tale of the reverend really was Lee’s attempt to redress the sacrifice of that urtext, then her failure to write it was perhaps what really prompted her willingness to exhume the latter. If nothing else, the release of Watchman put Lee on the record as a much thornier, knottier writer than Mockingbird would have done on its own, and this was apparently what she wanted. To that extent her efforts with the dismal preacher were not wasted.