Title: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Author: Casey Cep
Genre: True Crime/Biography/Non-Fiction
Publisher: Random House UK, Cornerstone, William Heinemann
Publication Date: 16th May 2019
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.
I was so excited to get my hands on this book which is a true crime novel and a sort of biography at the same time. Harper Lee is an author that has always intrigued me for a few reasons. Firstly there’s the fact she wrote one of the most famous American novels of all time, To Kill A Mockingbird, and then didn’t release another for decades until the controversial publication of Go Set A Watchman which I haven’t read because at the time I didn’t get the feeling Lee actually wanted it published and that bothered me. Reading this in depth look at the author kind of confirmed my feelings on that matter. Secondly, I find Lee’s connection to Truman Capote and her clearly important contribution to the writing of In Cold Blood really fascinating and vital to the discussion about the writing of true crime in general. Putting aside Harper Lee momentarily, the case that Furious Hours looks into of the Reverend Willie Maxwell is every bit as shocking and engrossing as the very best of the true crime genre.
There is always something extra compelling about stories set in the deep south and this tale did not disappoint in this regard. The Reverend is a mysterious and sinister figure and I could not tear myself away from the strange and murky details of his very probable crimes and rumoured supernatural powers. Furious Hours is split into three sections. The first covers the Reverend and his tangled web of murder and insurance. The second part details the life of the Reverend’s lawyer who is a man interesting enough for his own book to be honest and the last is all about the writer – Harper Lee herself – as she travels to the the trial of the man who finally put an end to the Reverend Maxwell and researches the case obsessively. The story Lee finds proves the saying that truth is almost always stranger than fiction but the most compelling part of Furious Hours for me is the story of Harper Lee’s literary career.
The author offers up an intelligent and intense exploration of Harper Lee, a woman famously enigmatic and complicated. There is a sense of sadness that I got from reading about Lee’s experiences with notoriety and success and I think this is one of the most movingly honest portrayals of what it really means to be a writer. Often biographies of celebrated figures who don’t particularly want to be written about can feel intrusive or unseemly but Furious Hours gets the tone just right. Cep doesn’t judge Lee but merely tries to build a realistic picture of an intelligent, perceptive and morally complex woman who struggled with some aspects of life and fame. By the end of this book I didn’t feel like I knew every detail of Lee’s life but I did feel like I had gained some real perspective about why people behave the way they do and an understanding that some mysteries don’t need to be completely exposed to be engrossing and worth examination. I would highly recommend Furious Hours to any reader of true crime and anyone who finds the writing process even slightly interesting. A definite five stars from me.
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I received this e-book through Netgalley. My review is my own honest opinion.