Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
I was fascinated with the character of Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird when I was a kid.
When I re-read the novel for my high school lit class, I was in awe of the layers of the story and its topics that are only complicated by growing up. Scout kept it honest and that’s what made her the perfect narrator; the adults are what complicated matters.
I knew Harper Lee had never published another novel but when I decided to look into work she’d done in the following years, I immediately hit a dead end in the age of Google. Lee valued her privacy above all else and stepped out of the spotlight almost immediately after the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, which brought with it instant wealth and fame. While she was quick to reply to letters from readers, she rarely gave interviews or attended events.
I wondered if she’d written TKAM and decided it was her one and only masterpiece and put down her pen, if she’d written privately for years but never shared because she feared or resented the spotlight, or if she simply became overwhelmed at the thought of a follow up to such an important novel.
After turning in her final draft of TKAM to her publishers, Lee accompanied her life-long friend Truman Capote to Kansas where she assisted in researching the shocking murder of the Clutter family. The notes taken by the pair later became the true-crime novel In Cold Blood, which is considered Capote’s masterpiece.
Little did I know that Lee learned about a serial killer in her home state of Alabama and a case that was so compelling she decided to write her own true-crime novel which she tentatively called The Reverend.
Lee (as far as we know about the secretive writer) didn’t write that true-crime novel but now author Casey Cep has pieced together the facts of the case that Lee spent years researching in the upcoming novel Furious Hours.
Readers are given the history of the small Alabama town where rural preacher Reverend Willie Maxwell grew up and what little is known about his early life. Then, things take a curious turn. Five of Maxwell’s family members die over a short period of time, all under highly suspicious circumstances, while Maxwell holds multiple life insurance policies on each. With the help of lawyer Tom Radney, Maxwell is found not guilty of the murder of his first wife and manages to collect large sums from the life insurance companies who were refusing to make payment because of the blatantly obvious crimes. In each case, the police never gather enough solid evidence to charge Maxwell with murder.
At the funeral for his last victim, Maxwell is shot dead by Robert Burns in front of hundreds of witnesses.
Robert Burns is aquitted… with the help of Tom Radney, the same lawyer who had previously defended the Reverend.
Writer Harper Lee is sitting in the courtroom during the trial, taking notes on what she hopes to be her next novel.
When Lee sat down to figure out how to write The Reverend, she realized she needed a protagonist, and set her sights on lawyer Tom Radney, who worked both sides of the curious case for years. Radney was willing to help Lee in any way he could to get the book written and more importantly, he was an ideal morally complex character. Radney had kept Maxwell out of prison and profited from the multiple insurance litigations and then in a surprising turn of events went on to win an aquittal for Maxwell’s murderer.
The problem was that Radney wasn’t a reliable narrator.
Lee wanted accuracy and it was maddening to find that her protagonist misremembered events of both the case and his own life.
Looking into the early life of Maxwell was equally troublesome because there were so few records of his life before the murders.
Short on facts, worried about the writing process and possible implications, Lee’s writing floundered. While those close to the private author knew never to ask what she was working on, she had offered information through the years on The Reverend, and the vague details given turned into myth as people have attested to wildly different levels of its progress.
Furious Hours is divided into three parts: The Reverend, The Lawyer, and The Writer.
Casey Cep gives us the solid facts on the life of the Reverend, from the sparse details of his beginning to his dramatic end at the funeral of his final victim.
Next, we learn the facts of Tom Radney’s life leading up to his work in the cases involving Willie Maxwell. Cep was able to gather a wealth of information about Radney, who passed away before she began researching this book, thanks to the help of his family.
Last but certainly not least, Cep sticks to the facts of Nelle Harper Lee’s notoriously private life.
The mystery surrounding Lee’s life and work has fascinated me to no end since I was a teen so when I learned last year that someone had taken the time to research both and that at the center of that mystery was a true crime story, there are no words for the level of excitement I experienced.
Casey Cep did an exceptional job of researching the case of Willie Maxwell and Harper Lee’s surprising involvement. Lee did not write the true-crime novel she set out to but thanks to Cep’s research, the dramatic case has finally been placed into the hands of readers with what I believe to be the same fair and accurate reporting that Lee would’ve given.
Both a fascinating true crime story and a candid look at Harper Lee’s life and effort to write a second novel, Furious Hours is a compelling novel that does justice to both stories told.
I have been anticipating this novel for months. I cannot possibly thank Knopf Publishing Group and the First To Read program enough for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is scheduled for release on May 6, 2019.