3 Reasons Harper Lee Was Almost a Crime Writer

Author Nelle Harper Lee (the Nelle being a tribute to her grandmother Ellen—Nelle being Ellen spelled backwards), writer of one of the most important books in American history, To Kill a Mockingbird, has passed away today at the young age of 89.  While she only published two novels—the second of which, the recently published Go Set a Watchman, is widely being recognized as a “first draft” of To Kill a Mockingbird—the modest, frugal writer from Monroeville, Alabama could have very well become an author of crime fiction.  Here are 3 interesting facts that could have led Harper Lee towards a career in crime writing: 

1) She Studied Law at the University of Alabama

While at the University of Alabama, Harper Lee was already pursuing writing by contributing to the school’s newspaper, as well as their humor magazine, The Rammer Jammer—eventually becoming its editor.

However, in her junior year, following her father’s footsteps (he was a well respected lawyer in Alabama, and the inspiration for Atticus Finch), she was accepted into a law program that allowed her to work on a law degree during her undergraduate studies—ultimately forcing her to abandon her editing position. After studying abroad at Oxford University, Lee dropped out of the program when she returned and decided to move to NYC to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer.

2) She Was Truman Capote’s Research Assistant for In Cold Blood

Harper Lee and Truman Capote were childhood friends—meeting when he was sent to live with his mother’s relatives who lived next door to the Lee residence. That friendship followed them into adulthood when Capote asked Lee to accompany him to Kansas to research the murder of four members of the Clutter family on their small community farm.

While Truman Capote’s flamboyant personality rubbed Kansas residences the wrong way, Harper Lee’s laidback and nonchalant ways helped win over the small town and aided the interview/research process. What was originally intended as an article for The New Yorker would evolve into the brilliant and critically acclaimed In Cold Blood.

3) She Actually Wrote a True Crime Story Herself

Perhaps it was the success of In Cold Blood and the relative snub of credit Capote offered afterwards that led Lee to move to Alexander City, Alabama to begin research on Willie Maxwell—a man suspected of murdering several family members and collecting insurance money on claims he had taken out shortly before their deaths—and Tom Radney, the real life Atticus Finch that represented the “alleged” killer.

In 1978, Lee met with Radney who was all too eager to have his story told. However, after months of research and countless interviews, all that survives is a four-page chapter that Lee had sent Radney. In it, all of the “b” characters were handwritten (due to the key being stuck on her typewriter), as was the final paragraph, and a title of “The Reverend” was scribbled at the top. Willie Maxwell appeared by name, but Tom Radney had been changed to Jonathan Larkin—perhaps indicating the book’s fictitious direction.

Although she had told Radney several times that she had enough content to rival the Old Testament and insisted that it was almost complete for years, it appears Lee’s foray into crime fiction might die with the reticent writer.

That is, unless—like Go Set a Watchman—a manuscript is posthumously discovered, and Tom Radney’s story can finally be told by the woman we’ve all grown up reading.

I, for one, lament the fact that the world was almost dealt a crime writing Harper Lee, but alas, I think we can all live with the contributions she did make.

RIP Harper Lee (1926-2016) 


Adam Wagner is an editor and writer for Criminal Element. Originally from Jacksonville, FL, Adam now lives in NYC where his hobbies include writing and performing stand-up and sketch comedy. Follow him on Twitter @shagner904


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