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

Casey Cep

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

Casey Cep

The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird

Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted - thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

As Alabama is consumed by these gripping events, it’s not long until news of the case reaches Alabama’s - and America’s - most famous writer. Intrigued by the story, Harper Lee makes a journey back to her home state to witness the Reverend’s killer face trial. Harper had the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research. Lee spent a year in town reporting on the Maxwell case and many more years trying to finish the book she called The Reverend.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.

This is the story Harper Lee wanted to write. This is the story of why she couldn’t.

Review

Harper Lee – author of the slightly well known To Kill a Mockingbird *– was by Truman Capote’s side when he wrote the brilliant work of fictionalised nonfiction, and arguably the first ‘true crime’ tale, *In Cold Blood. After the copious notes and interviews she had completed for Capote, she thought that, perhaps, she could write her own true-crime story, with more emphasis on the ‘true’ aspect than her oldest friend ever bothered with. When she heard about the case of Reverend Willie Maxwell, she found her story.

Maxwell had five family members who died in suspicious accidents, upon all of whom he had taken out lucrative insurance policies. These were all cashed-in thanks to his determined lawyer, Tom Radney. At the fifth funeral, a relative of one of the dead stood up in the pew before Reverend Maxwell and shot him in front of everyone – an act that caused a town terrified of the Reverend and his voodoo to breathe a sigh of relief. When the shooter needed a lawyer to take his case, the best man for the job was one familiar with many of its aspects – one Tom Radney. The story’s appeal is clear as day, and Harper Lee had the time, the skill and the personality to dig deep on the facts of the case. So why, then, did Lee’s book never eventuate?

From the very beginnings of Alabama’s current landscape to the end of Harper Lee’s life, Casey Cep has crafted a sharply written book, richly detailed and enormously enjoyable. Space is given to every character so that they are fully realised, making the account of these devastating events and all that surrounded them brim with life. Cep’s research and eye for detail is obvious but never laborious, crafting a neat flow in what is really a tremendously complicated tale. There are clever asides, with short, neat facts about authors or history or places – I would often share them aloud – and I resented having to sleep even though the ending was known: there was to be no book by Lee about this. That remains a disappointing fact, but what Cep has achieved in Lee’s wake is more than worthwhile: a chronicle of an enthralling case, and the famous writer who strove to understand it.


Fiona Hardy is our monthly crime fiction columnist, and also blogs about children’s books at Fiona The Hardy.

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