Crime Nonfiction

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee – Casey Cep

on
May 26, 2019
Furious Hours Book Cover Furious Hours
Casey Cep
Biography & Autobiography
Knopf
2019
Paperback
336

"The stunning true story of an Alabama serial killer, and the trial that obsessed the author of To Kill a Mockingbird in the years after the publication of her classic novel--a complicated and difficult time in her life that, until now, has been very little examined. Willie Maxwell was a Baptist reverend in Alabama; he also happened to be a serial killer. Between 1970 and 1977, his two wives and brother all died under suspicious circumstances -- each with hefty life insurance policies taken out by none other than the Reverend himself. With the help of a savvy lawyer, Maxwell escaped justice for years. Then, the teenage daughter of his third wife perished. At the funeral, the victim's uncle shot the Reverend dead in a church full of witnesses--and was subsequently acquitted of the murder, thanks to the same savvy lawyer who had represented the Reverend for all those years. Sitting in the audience during the trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York to her native Alabama with an idea of writing a book about the case. Now, Casey Cep brings this nearly inconceivable, gripping story to life on the page: from the shocking murders to the chicanery of insurance fraud to the courtroom drama. At the same time, it is a vividly told, elegiac account of Harper Lee's quest to write a second book after To Kill a Mockingbird, and a deeply moving portrait of this beloved writer's struggle with fame, success, and the mysteries of artistic creativity"--

Accursed

Furious Hours is a truly engrossing documentary style book that brings three enthralling stories together around a series of incidents involving a serial killer. Each part includes the perspective of a renowned personality; Reverend Willie Maxwell (Serial Killer Preacher – Voodoo Preacher), Tom Radney (Lawyer) and Harper Lee (Author – To Kill a Mockingbird).

The structure of the book feels more like 3 shorter stories with a theme, rather than 3 integrated parts in the one story. Each part covers the biographical background of each character with great awareness and commentary. The research details are comprehensive and pursue threads to an extent that sometimes feel quite a distance from the connecting thread. This is especially true for the section detailing Nelle Harper Lee. 

Part 1, focuses on Reverend Willie Maxwell, a preacher accused, but never convicted, of murdering 5 members of his family in order to benefit from life insurance policies he held on them. The narrative reads very visually, outlining the background, history, facts and supposition, all collated from witness accounts, law-enforcement records and background research. The comprehensive coverage creates a belief that various salient points are explored to their full conclusion. For example, the research into the history and operation of life insurance policies in the US is superbly detailed. The means by which Maxwell escaped prosecution and the autopsy finding on some of the deaths earned him the facade of a Voodoo Preacher. 

Part 2, the lawyer, Tom Radney, represented Reverend Maxwell in the insurance claim pay-outs and investigations. After Maxwell was shot dead he represented Robert Burns, the man accused of shooting his former client. Radney was a very colourful character that seemed to have a propensity in defending minorities and difficult unsavoury cases. His background into politics and his ability to seduce an audience, particularly a jury, is fascinating. The dialogue and exchanges of courtroom drama are entertaining and cleverly drawn by Casey Cep.

The glamorous aspect of the story is that Harper Lee attended the court trial of Robert Burns with the intention of inspiring and generating ideas for the plot and theme of a new story. Her love of real crime, having written To Kill a Mockingbird and having worked with Truman Capote in the research for his book In Cold Blood was excited with this case. Part 3, covers in wonderful detail the biography of Nelle Harper Lee from her childhood with Truman Capote, up through her studies and writing career – before and after To Kill a Mockingbird. The struggles to finally deliver her masterpiece and the issues she faced following the fame, glory and financial success are presented in a very coherent and compelling manner.

The Harper Lee content consumes 50% of the book and a major friendship with Capote during many of those years shows two individuals that faced many internal demons. She reflects on her childhood friendship ending as;

“Truman did not cut me out of his life until after In Cold Blood was published. I never knew why he did it, the only comfort I had was in the discovery that he had done the same to several others, all faithful old friends. Our friendship, however, had been life-long, and I had assumed that the ties that bound us were unbreakable.”

I also found it quite fascinating that To Kill a Mockingbird came from the amalgamation of 2 shorter stories Go Set a Watchman and The Long Good-Bye. Interesting that her second novel was released in 2016, 67 years after her first and used the title Go Set a Watchman.

At times I wondered about the structure of the book and whether the parts were tenuously held together with a convenient thread, however, the reading of the material was fabulous with its insights and revelations. The research and its presentation were extensive and to read a factual account of events in a fictional style was impressive. Having jumped between 4 and 5 stars throughout the book the honest rating would be 4.5 stars. 

The best non-fiction book I’ve read this year and I would highly recommend it. I’d like to thank Random House UK, Cornerstone and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC version in return for an honest review.

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Peter Donnelly
Ireland

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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