Two Alabama families told the Associated Press that Harper Lee was working on a true-crime novel about a string of murders connected to a local preacher in their small town

By Lindsay Kimble
Updated September 09, 2015 05:05 PM
Taylor Hill/Getty

The rumors of a third book by Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee just might be true – at least, according to two Alabama families.

After the unsurfacing and publication of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, earlier this year, speculation built over the existence of more untouched manuscripts by the author. The 89-year-old’s lawyer alluded to the possibility, but the book’s actuality has yet to be confirmed.

Robert Louis Burns, an Alabama man found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of a preacher in the ’70s, revealed to the Associated Press, however, that Lee had interviewed him for a novel she was working on, tentatively titled The Reverend.

Burns, who stood up in an Alexander City, Alabama, funeral home and shot local preacher Will Maxwell – a man suspected in a string of nearby deaths – said that Lee just showed up at his door one day, according to the AP.

“She came up out of the blue. She said, ‘I’m Harper Lee.’ She said, ‘I’m interested in writing this book about the reverend,’ ” the truck diver, now 74, said.

Lee visited the town to research a true-crime novel based on the speculation that the preacher, who allegedly believed in the occult, may have been connected to the serial murder, the AP reported.

While Lee reportedly spent months on the book, neither it, nor her notes, ever surfaced, according to the AP.

The To Kill a Mockingbird author also reportedly worked closely with a local lawyer who had successfully defended the preacher, Will Maxwell, in an earlier homicide case, and then, in turn, successfully defended Burns for killing Maxwell.

The defense lawyer’s widow, Madolyn Radney, told the AP that Lee and her husband communicated about the book off and on for years.

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“She promised him she was going to write this book about the case,” Radney told the AP.

Radney also revealed that she is in possession of four typed pages from the novel’s opening that Lee sent to her husband. Scrawled across the top of the first page is the book’s title, she said. Typewriter markings on the text are consistent with the machine used by Lee around that time, the AP reported.

When Radney and her husband questioned Lee for more details, “She would say, ‘It’s in the first draft,’ or, ‘The publisher wants this,’ ” Radnor said.

The preacher in question, Maxwell, was indicted in the murder of his first wife, but was acquitted. His second wife, a nephew and brother also died, but he was never charged in any of their deaths, according to the AP. It was after Maxwell’s stepdaughter was found dead under his car that an incensed Burns shot him in church.

The book (if it exists) has yet to be found, but historian Wayne Flynt told the AP that Lee’s sister Louise once told him the book had been completed.