The new novel, Go Set a Watchman, is out today and is already a guaranteed best-seller as the follow-up to Lee’s 1960 book about a rape trial in the racially divided deep south.
Waterstones’ flagship store in London’s Piccadilly was hosting a series of talks about the classic novel and screening the 1962 film version before opening its tills at a minute past midnight so that fans could buy the follow-up as soon as possible.
Its shops in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Nottingham were also set to be open for fans.
Other book shops were also getting in on the act and opening early today to take advantage of the publicity.
One of them – Forum Books in Corbridge, Northumberland – has employed a speed reader who will try to finish the book in half an hour and offer an instant review.
The original story and its central characters, Scout, her brother Jem and their lawyer father Atticus, are known and loved by millions of readers around the world, but many have been left “baffled and distressed” at the revelation that the new book paints Atticus as a racist bigot who went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
Go Set a Watchman revolves around the now-adult Scout’s return to her native Alabama from New York to visit her father.
A New York Times review revealed the plot twist, telling readers: “We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird as that novel’s moral conscience: kind, wise, honourable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s.”
However, it adds: “Shockingly, in Ms Lee’s long-awaited novel, Go Set a Watchman, Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like, ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people’ or asks his daughter, ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?’.”
News of the new book’s publication stunned the literary world earlier this year and concerns were raised about the extent of Lee’s involvement in the project. Her agent was forced to respond to reports suggesting the 88-year-old was being taken advantage of.
Authorities in her native Alabama closed an investigation into the issue, saying the reclusive writer had “made it quite clear’’ that she wanted the book published.