Book review: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee | Casey Cep

‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’ tells the true story of a suspected Alabaman serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Told in three parts, ‘Furious Hours’ documents first the life of Reverend Willie Maxwell, 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 – Tom Radney, whose political and legal career is covered in the second part.

Finally, the book covers Harper Lee, who had travelled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own true-crime classic based on the case.

Much more than a meticulously researched story of the three fascinating individuals, ‘Furious Hours’ provides a comprehensive commentary on the racial (and regular) politics of the Deep South, and explores the divisions and connections between the case and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’

Famously anachronistic and unconventional, Harper Lee could be (and has been) an extraordinary subject for a solo biography, particularly in light of her infamous reticence. Cep’s inclusion of the enigmatic author in a larger context feels authentic, in that Lee was very much a woman associated with Alabama, and to the political ideals she espoused in her novel, although rarely spoke of in public. Through the painstaking collation of interviews, correspondence and eyewitness accounts, Cep has managed to build 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, against the backdrop of social turmoil and struggle.

‘Furious Hours’ is both fascinating in its subject and laborious in its length and detail. This is no light, easy holiday read, but is compelling nonetheless.

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