I had never heard of the crimes of Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was suspected of murdering five of his family members in order to collect on the insurance policies he had taken out on them. I had also not known that he was shot and killed at the funeral of his adopted daughter. As a result, I was excited to read this book.
The prologue starts out promisingly, dropping the reader into the 1977 trial of Reverend Maxwell’s murderer, Robert Burns. We see Tom Radney, the defense lawyer who formerly represented Reverend Maxwell and is now defending Robert Burns. We also get a glimpse of Harper Lee, quietly watching the proceedings so she could get information for the book she planned to write about the Reverend. Though there were some interesting bits of information after the prologue, my interest tended to wax and wane as the book progressed.
The major problem I had with the book was its structure. It is divided into three parts: The Reverend, The Lawyer, and The Writer. Each of the parts are mini biographies of the Reverend Maxwell, Tom Radney, and Harper Lee, respectively. Author Casey Cep describes the lives of these three individuals from birth to death, so there is quite a bit of information that has nothing to do with the Burns trial or even the Reverend’s crimes. In The Lawyer, for example, the reader is forced to read about Tom Radney’s political career, when all he or she really needs to know is that he was the lawyer for Reverend Maxwell and also represented the man who shot him because he believed that everyone deserved representation.
The first part, The Reverend, has some interesting aspects. The most astonishing things about the Maxwell murders are not that he committed them–that is made clear in the summary of the book. What is astonishing is the rate at which he was able to take out insurance policies on his family members. For example, by 1970 the Reverend had policies out on his wife, mother, brothers, aunts, nieces, nephews, and infant daughter. The initial payment on these policies was less than a dollar. Another astonishing fact was that the Alabama authorities were unable to prove that the Reverend was responsible for his crimes, despite having a first-rate crime lab at their disposal. Therefore he went unpunished, at least until Robert Burns shot him.
The third part, The Writer, was most interesting to me, mainly because I’m a writer and was fascinated by the difficulties Harper Lee had when trying to write. Obviously, Lee never wrote about Reverend Maxwell despite her extensive research. Casey Cep speculates on why Lee did not write her true crime book. Perhaps Lee thought that she had too many unreliable sources. She stated that she had “enough rumor, fantasy, dreams, conjecture, and outright lies for a volume the length of the Old Testament.” Perhaps she worried that the book would not be as good as her famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Whatever the case, after spending several “furious hours” reading this book, I wished Harper Lee had written Reverend Maxwell’s story.