Furious Hours

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

by Casey Cep

Overview: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.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more years working on her own version of the case.

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.

Deanna Boe (07/28/19): This is an extremely interesting and well written book, in fact it could almost be three separate books since so much information is given about three separate subjects that all tie together. This is Casey Cep’s first novel, but I am sure it won’t be her last. It is non-fiction that incorporates the unlikely story of a black man, his lawyer, and the author of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. It even includes interesting aspects about the connection of Truman Capote and Harper Lee who had been long time friends since childhood.

The first section is about Reverend Willie Maxwell, a rural preacher in Alabama. Maxwell was born in the very segregated south, and served in the segregated military during WW II. The author sees irony in our acceptance of the segregated south and the German’s views about Jews; a correlation I had never thought about before. Maxwell comes under the microscope of the law because people close to him, and whom he has taken out large insurance policies, keep dying in strange ways. What is most amazing about these deaths was the fact no one could prove that Maxwell had anything to do with them even though he inherited lots of money from the insurance companies and the deaths were so similar. What was of particular interest was the fact how easy it had been for Maxwell to take out insurance policies on these people and they didn’t have to know anything about it. The author gives interesting information about the practice of voodoo and how it originated. Did Maxwell practice this?

On a more practical matter, just how did Maxwell manage to skate free from the accusations he had murdered these people? He had a good lawyer by the name of Tom Radney. That is where the second part of the book comes into play; it is about this lawyer, his life and background. Radney had first wanted to get into politics, but when that didn’t work out, he settled for being a well respected Southern lawyer who made a good name for himself defending people.

These two people could have had a book devoted entirely to themselves, but the real draw centers around the third part, and the third person, Harper Lee. I doubt there is an adult who hasn’t heard of the book TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and if they haven’t read it, they have seen the movie. Amazingly enough, that was her only book, why? Why weren’t there more? What I found most interesting was the fact she and Truman Capote were close friends from childhood. He came to Alabama as a child and lived next door to her during the summer months. They remained friends for “most” of their adult lives. She even helped him to do major research on his extremely famous novel, IN COLD BLOOD. Their early relationship brings to mind the characters she uses in her novel. Casey Cep tells us about Harper Lee and why she feels she wrote only the one book. Her last interview before she went “silent” Lee stated: “Good writers treated work something like the medieval priesthood and sequestered themselves to do it well. He writes not to communicate with other people but to communicate more assuredly with himself.” How did this apply to Harper Lee? I will let you discover all of that when you read the book. I think you will find all of this very interesting.
Rating: *****

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