What is this about?: This about a murder trial, a lawyer who helped said murderer get off and it still amazes me how that happened. And, it’s about Harper Lee’s struggle with fame and writing post-Mockingbird.
What else is this about?: It provides interesting and unexpected insight into Harper Lee that I hadn’t heard of before, and it showed how she struggled with her success in unexpected ways.
“A triumph on every level. One of the losses to literature is that Harper Lee never found a way to tell a gothic true-crime story she’d spent years researching. Casey Cep has excavated this mesmerizing story and tells it with grace and insight and a fierce fidelity to the truth.” —David Grann, best-selling author of Killers of the Flower Moon
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.
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 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.
I couldn’t resist Furious Hours because of the Harper Lee connection, and while that insight was satisfying in some ways, it was unsatisfying in others.
The book is divided into three sections, each telling a story about the Reverend, and then his lawyer and then Harper Lee. I went into this expecting a more integrated look at these three main characters but what I found was a book that focused on each person specifically, and were in essence mini-biographies.
To some extent, those parts did satisfy the true crime buff in me. I mean, the Reverend for instance, got away with murdering so many members of his family for the insurance money, which at that point in time was not well regulated — at all. Yes, the history of insurance companies in the US, and how they treated their Black customers proved enlightening to say the least.
What followed was insight into the lawyer who defended him, his political career and a biography I didn’t really want to know. I mean, I kept expected Harper Lee to appear in those sections, except she never did.
Hers was the last section of the book, and while it went into her experience wanting to write this story, it also tracked how she wrote and published To Kill a Mockingbird, and how she struggled to write again after that. This is the part that was the most interesting and it made me wonder why the book hadn’t focused on Lee, and integrating other parts of the Reverend and his lawyer’s story.
There’s compelling stuff in here, but some narrative choices didn’t work for me.