This is the true story of a serial killer that takes place in Alabama in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Willie Maxwell was a man that became wealthy at the expense of his wives’ and family members’ insurance policies. As the number of deaths climb over a period of a few years, suspicions surrounding Willie at a time when people’s fears and rumors of Voodooism mistakenly make him appear to be something more than the fraud that he was.
It is clear that Willie was able to manipulate the insurance system to his advantage, but it is also true that he had a famous lawyer from the times representing him in each of the murder trials and keeping him a free man. Tom Radney was a successful lawyer and later a state representative that represented Willie in each of his cases and to the dismay of the town people, always got Willie off. Tom was a man that also fought for civil rights and freedoms, which made representing a deceitful person such as Willie seem ironic to his cause. A further irony exists as Tom represents successfully the man that ultimately kills Willie.
Through this trial there is someone sitting in the gallery that is almost unnoticed, Nelle Harper Lee. She is known as Nelle to her hometown and she is there to take notes for what she thinks will be her next book. The author gives great detail about Ms. Lee’s life and her relationship with her family and her close friend Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood. Over the next years she returns many times to interview people that knew Willie in the hope of someday finishing her book about him that she plans on calling The Reverend. However, when the world learned of a forthcoming book on February 3, 2015, it was actually the manuscript that Harper Lee had delivered to her first publisher fifty-eight years before, Go Set a Watchman.
Casey Cep’s interviews with family and friends of Lee and the people of Alexander City, Alabama give insight and a knowledge of history to the times and life of a great author.