Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee - book cover
  • Publisher : Knopf; 1st edition
  • Published : 07 May 2019
  • Pages : 336
  • ISBN-10 : 1101947861
  • ISBN-13 : 9781101947869
  • Language : English

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


NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019 BY Time, LitHub, Vulture, Glamour, O Magazine, Town and Country, Suspense Magazine, Inside Hook

New York Times
Best Seller

"Compelling . . . at once a true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and miniature biography of Harper Lee. If To Kill a Mockingbird was one of your favorite books growing up, you should add Furious Hours to your reading list today." -Southern Living
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.

Editorial Reviews

One of Time's 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2019

One of The Washington Post's Most Notable Reads of 2019

"She explains as well as it is likely ever to be explained why Lee went silent after To Kill a Mockingbird. (The clue's in Cep's title.) And it's here, in her descriptions of another writer's failure to write, that her book makes a magical little leap, and it goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write." -Michael Lewis, The New York Times Book Review

"A compelling hybrid of a novel, at once a true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and miniature biography of Harper Lee. If To Kill a Mockingbird was one of your favorite books growing up, you should add Furious Hours to your reading list today." -Southern Living

"Cep delivers edge-of-your-seat courtroom drama while brilliantly reinventing Southern Gothic…The result is an enthralling work of narrative nonfiction-Cep's debut-and a poignant meditation on a book that never was."-O Magazine

"[A] well-told, ingeniously structured double mystery-one an unsolved serial killing, the other an elusive book-rich in droll humour and deep but lightly worn research"
-The Economist

"A brilliant take on the mystery of inspiration and the even darker mysteries of the human heart." -People

"What I didn't see coming was the emotional response I'd have as I blazed through the last 20 pages of the book - yet there I was, weeping…A gripping, incredibly well-written portrait of not only Harper Lee, but of mid-20th century Alabama - and a still-unanswered set of crimes to rival the serial killers made infamous in the same time period." -Ilana Masad, NPR

"Cep's book is a marvel. In elegant prose, she gives us the fullest story yet of Lee's post-Mockingbird life in New York–boozy, unproductive, modest despite her means, yet full of books and theater–and her quest in Alabama, where she grew close to Radney and his family, to tell the Maxwell story. Cep's is an account emotionally attuned to the toll that great writing takes, and shows that sometimes one perfect book is all we can ask for, even while we wish for another." -Lucas Wittmann, Time

"Remarkable, thoroughly researched... the great, acrobatic trick Cep accomplishes is to deliver a book so richly detailed and full of thoughtfully condensed research without having access to any of its three main subjects: Willie Maxwell, Tom Radney, and Lee... Cep has a knack for a chapter-ending cliffhanger and building a sort of eerie tension... At her best, Cep manages the feat that all great nonfiction aspires to: combining the clean preci...

Readers Top Reviews

Furious hours is well named. Casey Cep has certainly put them in to turn out this unputdownable book. Lee Harper would have approved. A great read is the result.
The first half is about the murders, the murderer and his lawyer, the second half is about Harper Lee. Very interesting factual stuff here and not just about Harper Lee. Highly recommended
s howardAlex Gardine
This book is over-written & goes into constant minute detail with endless tangents and asides meaning that it does not hang together. This all adds up to an over-long read & it feels more like a graduate research project than a biography (actually, it is a biography of several people all told). Turgid & irritating to read, it could be double the book at half the length. This is more the fault of the editor than the author. That said, it does provide interesting background to In Cold Blood ( Capote) and To Kill a Mockingbird. A must-read for students of the above; perhaps not for the rest of us (until edited!).
This was recommended to me as part of a reading prescription for a reading retreat. I very much enjoyed it. It was full of fascinating details about life in the southern states of America, the life and times of Harper Lee and the details of the murder case which caught her eye.
This is a really interesting book that shows both the promise and flaws of using primary source research when the author doesn't have the ability to do first-hand interviews anymore. Casey Cep has put together a history of a serial killer (more like someone who had no problem using murder to cash in on insurance), a liberal lawyer who was happy to defend all comers, and Harper Lee's curmudgeonly life of her later years looking for something, anything, to give herself one last literary break. All three elements come together with the use of old records, stories, interviews, and exactly the sort of deep, deep attention to detail that you'd expect from a New Yorker journalist. If there's a fact she can uncover, she includes it - so you have history not just of people but of the insurance industry, publishing, and all sort of intriguing offshoots. But - the drawback with this approach is you can only go as far as it will take you, and there are stones impossible to uncover. The "Reverend" Maxwell is dead - so any insight into his motivation dies with him (although, it's pretty clearly money), I don't exactly understand why lawyer Tom Radney would defend such an obviously guilty criminal so many times (again, probably the money), and it's not entirely clear why Harper Lee took up the story, and then dropped it - there's room for speculation, sure, but it never *quite* comes into focus. Bottom line seems to be she just couldn't come up with the literary angle, or her drinking led to writer's block, or she just lost interest, or she couldn't decide between fiction and fact, or without a great editor to help she couldn't self-direct, or...so there's a lot of questions about what happened at the end. I don't mind having unanswered questions, and this look into a forgotten history of a literary icon is worth it no matter what - but it reminded me that as good a researcher as Cep or others can be, you can't read minds. Lee had her own flaws that her fame probably exacerbated. This is certainly not a comprehensive biography of any one part of this story - the facts are lost to history - but it's pretty interesting all the same. If you're a fan of Harper Lee and want further insight into her life and creative choices (or lack of choices), this is an intriguing book.

Short Excerpt Teaser

Excerpted from Furious Hours:

Nobody recognized her. Harper Lee was well known, but not by sight, and if she hadn't introduced herself, it's unlikely that anyone in the courtroom would have figured out who she was. Hundreds of people were crowded into the gallery, filling the wooden benches that squeaked whenever someone moved or leaning against the back wall if they hadn't arrived in time for a seat. Late September wasn't late enough for the Alabama heat to have died down, and the air-conditioning in the courthouse wasn't working, so the women waved fans while the men's suits grew damp under their arms and around their collars. The spectators whispered from time to time, and every so often they laughed-an uneasy laughter that evaporated whenever the judge quieted them.

The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. Three months before, at the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl, the man with his legs crossed patiently beside the defense table had pulled a pistol from the inside pocket of his jacket and shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell three times in the head. Three hundred people had seen him do it. Many of them were now at his trial, not to learn why he had killed the Reverend-everyone in three counties knew that, and some were surprised no one had done it sooner-but to understand the disturbing series of deaths that had come before the one they'd witnessed.

One by one, over a period of seven years, six people close to the Reverend had died under circumstances that nearly everyone agreed were suspicious and some deemed supernatural. Through all of the resulting investigations, the Reverend was represented by a lawyer named Tom Radney, whose presence in the courtroom that day wouldn't have been remarkable had he not been there to defend the man who killed his former client. A Kennedy liberal in the Wallace South, Radney was used to making headlines, and this time he would make them far beyond the local Alexander City Outlook. Reporters from the Associated Press and other wire services, along with national magazines and newspapers including Newsweek and The New York Times, had flocked to Alexander City to cover what was already being called the tale of the murderous voodoo preacher and the vigilante who shot him.

One of the reporters, though, wasn't constrained by a daily deadline. Harper Lee lived in Manhattan but still spent some of each year in Monroeville, the town where she was born and raised, only 150 miles away from Alex City. Seventeen years had passed since she'd published To Kill a Mockingbird and twelve since she'd finished helping her friend Truman Capote report the crime story in Kansas that became In Cold Blood. Now, finally, she was ready to try again. One of the state's best trial lawyers was arguing one of the state's strangest cases, and the state's most famous author was there to write about it. She would spend a year in town investigating the case, and many more turning it into prose. The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would become of the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee's book.