Review: The Devil and Harper Lee by Mark Seal




In the 1970s, a mysterious man captivated and terrorized a small Alabama town. He was elegant and handsome, a charismatic pastor and leader in the African American community. But rumors swirled. Preaching on Sunday, people would say, killing on Monday.

Far away in New York City, one of America’s most beloved writers was about to get caught up in the strange and violent tale of Reverend Willie J. Maxwell. Harper Lee, author of the modern-day classic To Kill a Mockingbird, was searching for her next book when the perfect story came her way: There was a man, the Reverend, who had allegedly murdered five of his family members, and managed to do it without getting caught. Thanks to the skills of his talented lawyer, he collected sizeable amounts of money from insurance policies that named him as the beneficiary. It was said the Reverend used voodoo to commit the murders and that his magical powers made him untouchable. And then, at the funeral of his most recent alleged victim—his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter—someone pointed a pistol at Reverend Maxwell’s head and shot three times.

Mesmerized by the string of bloody deaths, Harper Lee returned to her native Alabama. She spent months in Alexander City, getting to know the town and the people, slowly pulling out the threads of this macabre tale. She found a story that only a writer of her caliber could do justice to: a modern southern gothic tale of death, fraud, superstition, and race. But apparently she never finished the book. After all that research, all the time spent tracking leads, speaking with crucial sources, and examining records, she dropped the project. Why?

Acclaimed investigative reporter Mark Seal, himself an Alabama native, follows the trails of both the Reverend and Harper Lee, bringing the lurid tale back to life. He interviews key players, including relatives and other survivors who bear witness to this astonishing true story. One can only wonder how Lee herself would have told it. With The Devil and Harper Lee, Seal has woven together a new and uniquely American mystery.


I really wanted to love this book as it sounded like an amazing premise. I love true crime and I think Harper Lee is pretty badass, however, this was only a short book and so I felt like there was so much missing!

I listened to this on audio, which was fun and I enjoyed it in this format. It was a very quick listen and good background noise for doing housework.

I began this book very excited by the concept of it, and the first couple of chapters that introduce us to the Reverend and Harper Lee set up a really good story that I was looking forward to diving into. I’d never heard of Reverend Maxwell and his crimes, so it’s always exciting to discover a new bonkers true crime story.

Unfortunately, I felt this book lacked a lot of what I was hoping for. I enjoyed how it intertwined Harper Lee’s life with her discovery of this crazy true crime story about a possible serial killer, but I felt it only really scratched the surface on the crimes and focused more on Lee. But even the parts about her life weren’t fleshed out enough. I definitely go into true crime books wanting to know more about the true crime than anything else, so maybe that was my bad picking up this book and expecting more of the gruesome details.

Ren at What’s Nonfiction recommended I look at a book called Furious Home: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep as an alternative to this book, which I think I will because I’m definitely interested in knowing more about the whole story!

Without a doubt, this is a great short listen / read if you’re looking to pass some time, but think of it as more of a Spark Notes of the what really happened. I feel like a lot more research needs to be done for me to know more about this story.

This is a Scribd exclusive book!

9 Replies to “Review: The Devil and Harper Lee by Mark Seal”

  1. Interesting, I hadn’t heard about this before either. Then again, there are enough odd crimes in the world that there’s no way we could hear about all of them. Too bad this didn’t have the detail you were looking for, but I hope you’re able to learn more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. Unfortunately, I think the fact the victims were African American would have had something to do with this not being a widely known crime. The dude was a serial killer after all, that’s a pretty big deal! I’m hoping I can find another book that will give me mroe of the detail that I was after in this one 🙂


  2. I’m surprised the author even tried to make this a brief book, because there’s really a lot to the story, from both the Reverend element and on Harper Lee’s side. Furious Hours definitely fills in everything you were probably left wondering after this one, definitely try that one! It was just so good.

    Liked by 1 person

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