I devoured Casey Cep’s new book, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee. I find it to be exciting, informative and full of Alabama history. Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for New Yorker and the New York Times, came to Monroeville, Alabama in 2015. A lifelong fan of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, Cep wanted to investigate a “lost” book Lee supposedly had written about Willie Maxwell, a real life serial murderer. The book was entitled, The Reverend, and Lee did extensive research over a number of years on this case. Lee had done much of the research and editing for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood of which she was never credited. Capote chose to write his crime story as a “non-fiction novel” which made Lee question the integrity of the story. She knew she didn’t want to use the same format, but how to structure the story gave her fits for years. Cep says these issues confront every writer of a crime story, “Perennially we wonder about the popularity of true crime, or the ethics of reportage, or the use of dialogue. These are controversial, open-ended questions that come up all the time…Somewhere along the way it became very clear to me that I was writing the book she never would: a book that had her in it, about her process, her mind, what made her interested in this case, and what made it hard for her to finish” (Adam Morgan, 2019).
Cep writes Furious Hours in three parts which build on each other. It begins with the story of Willie Maxwell, his upbringing and military career, his three marriages, the suspicious deaths of two of his wives and numerous family members, and his insurance scam aided by lawyer Tom Radney. The reader gets a sense of small town eastern Alabama in the middle of the 20th century, the racial strata, the poverty, the heat, the food. The second section is about Tom Radney, privileged small town lawyer who had his eyes on state politics in Montgomery. Radney not only represents Maxwell in his insurance scam, he represents Robert Burns who guns down Maxwell at the funeral of 15 year old Shirley Ann Ellington. It is as convoluted as it appears. The third and last section is on Lee herself which corrects some longstanding details of her family and personal life as well as her dedication in researching this case.
This is what I found fascinating. Everyone knew Maxwell was the murderer of all these people he was collecting life insurance money on, but the exact causes of death were rarely determined making it hard to convict him. The community was afraid of him, many suspected voodoo was involved, the law enforcement personnel were frustrated, the new forensic lab at Auburn University was limited by what poisons could be tested, the county coroner was trained as electrician. It was a helluva mess if there ever was one. The community breathed a sigh of relief the day Robert Burns gunned Maxwell down in front of 400 funeral attendees. Radney defends Burns on a case of temporary insanity, and then it’s the County DA who is frustrated.
Cep says, “I am a creature of place. I think there might be some people for whom Furious Hours is a boringly thorough look at place, people who just want the action and don’t need to know whose family did what two generations ago. But for me, it feels like the necessary way to make you really feel the world.” Agreed. And there were some in my beloved book club who felt the book was “tedious”, “like a term paper.” I, however, gobbled it up in a weekend, texting my history-loving son twice telling him to get the book. There are people alive today who feel Lee wrote the entire manuscript of The Reverend” and still hope it will turn up one day. And that would be fine with me!
Cep’s quotes from “Reimagining Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel: An Interview with Casey Cep- Adam Morgan, Longreads, May 2019.