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Report: Alabama investigating possible elder abuse in connection with Harper Lee’s new novel

This May 2010 photo provided by Penny Weaver shows author Nelle Harper Lee in her assisted living room in Montoeville, Ala. (Penny Weaver/AP)

The news last month that Harper Lee would be publishing a second book was met with a brief blip of exultation followed by skepticism from fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Why would the 88-year-old author, a woman so publicity-averse she once compared herself to the reclusive Boo Radley from her novel, have agreed to the publication of a “Mockingbird” predecessor she tabled more than 50 years ago?

Many concluded that Lee, who resides in an assisted-living facility and is said to be in declining health, could not have knowingly consented to a new novel, entitled “Go Set a Watchman.”

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Now, the New York Times reported Wednesday night, at least one complaint about potential elder abuse has been filed, and Alabama state officials are investigating the claims.

The Times report said investigators for the state’s Human Resources Department and the Alabama Securities Commission, tasked with preventing financial fraud against the elderly, interviewed Lee last month. They also spoke to employees of the facility where she lives, as well as to several friends.

[Related: Harper Lee to publish sequel to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’]

[Related: To Shill a Mockingbird: How the discovery of a manuscript became Harper Lee’s “new” novel]

Writer Marja Mills, whose book “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee” chronicles the 18 months she spent living next to Lee and her elder sister Alice, said she was among those interviewed. The printing of Mills’s memoir was something of a controversial saga in its own right — Mills, Harper Lee and Lee’s attorney Tonya Carter got into a bitter argument about whether the book had been written with Lee’s consent.

This year, in her meeting with Alabama investigators, Mills shared a transcript of what she said was a 2010 conversation with Alice Lee discussing the author’s cognizance.

Harper “doesn’t know from minute to the other what she’s told anybody,” Alice said, according to the transcript. “She’s surprised at anything she hears because she doesn’t remember anything that’s ever been said about it.”

Speaking with The Washington Post last month, Mills expressed doubts about Lee’s mental state.

“My feeling is that Alice’s statement in Alice’s words is a pretty concise snapshot of what the concerns are,” she said. ” From what I’ve heard, [Harper Lee] can sound okay in conversation but not remember that somebody has come to see her the day before.”

Mills added she had concerns about Carter, who clashed with Mills over “The Mockingbird Next Door” and who has been one of the only sources of statements from Lee regarding the discovery of “Watchman.”

Investigators also reportedly spoke with Marcella Harrington, an aide paid by Carter, according to the Times. They wanted to know whether the author could recognize friends and was receiving quality care. Harrington told them that the author is lucid and aware of the new book.

Asked by a reporter whether Lee is mentally alert, Harrington replied, “As far as I know, she is.”

Both Carter and Lee’s publisher dismissed claims that the author was not mentally capable of authorizing the new book’s publication. And in a statement issued through Carter, Lee said she was “alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of Watchman.”

But a doctor who said he filed an anonymous complaint that may have prompted the investigation was unconvinced. Though he has not treated Lee, he has known the author for years, according to the Times, and was concerned by reports of the author’s frailty.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the divisive nature of the issue, he told the Times that he called Alabama’s adult protective services hotline, asking for an investigation as to whether Lee was capable of fully consenting to the new novel’s publication.

Human Resources Department spokesman Barry Spear told the Times that abuse inquiries are confidential and that he could not comment on any investigation.

So far, Lee has not spoken directly to reporters about the new novel or answered questions about her mental ability. The closest she’s come is a two-word statement she gave after receiving a letter from Birmingham News reporter Connor Sheets last week: “Go away!”