“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.
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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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.5★s “Lee had committed herself to a book built from facts, but when it came to the story of the Reverend Maxwell, those were hard to come by, and harder still to verify ... History isn’t what happened but what gets written down, and the various sources that make up the archival record generally overlooked the lives of poor black southerners … A writer trying to fix the life of Reverend Willie Maxwell on the page was mostly at the mercy of oral history, which could be misremembered or manipulated or simply withheld from an outsider.” Furious Hours is a non-fiction book by American author, Casey Cep. In 1977, author Harper Lee attended, virtually incognito, the murder trial of Robert Louis Burns in Alexander City, Alabama. It was a fascinating case, and Lee, already known for To Kill A Mockingbird, and for her part in Truman Capote’s true-crime classic, In Cold Blood, intended to write a book about it. She never did. Cep divides her account of this into three sections. The Reverend was Reverend Willie Maxwell, and this section summarises his life and details the known facts about the six deaths in which he is thought to have a hand. Cep paints the backdrop for these deaths by giving the reader brief potted histories of: the area in Alabama where it all took place; life insurance policies and practices; the trade of pulpwooding; the development of forensic sciences in Alabama; and voodoo. Maxwell’s scheme with life insurance policies was well known from his first wife’s death, so by the time the next family member, his older brother, John died: “According to his death certificate, John Columbus dies of a heart attack, caused by the overconsumption of alcohol; according to nearly the whole of Nixburg, John Columbus died of being a Maxwell.” The Attorney was Tom Radney, former politician, but by 1977, a successful full-time lawyer in Alexander City: “Big Tom was a walking Rolodex of bias and conflict; he knew who had been fired from what, where someone had worked before she got her current job, why one person would pardon an aggravated assault and another would want the death penalty for petty theft. He was the lawyerly version of the ‘old woman’ in W. J. Cash’s Mind of the South, the one, ‘with the memory like a Homeric bard’s, capable of moving easily through a mass of names and relationships so intricate that the quantum theory is mere child’s play in comparison.’” He had represented Willie Maxwell in court for the trial for his first wife’s murder as well as the myriad of contested insurance claims, but now he was representing the man who shot Maxwell in front of three hundred witnesses. “Five of the several dozen prospective jurors had to be dismissed right away, because, in addition to being summoned, they’d been subpoenaed: four were character witnesses for the defendant, and one was an eyewitness to the shooting. Those dismissals were telling. As with any small-town trial, the lawyers had to weigh not whether people knew one another but how well, in what way, and what degree of sympathy or antipathy.” The Writer was, of course, (Nelle) Harper Lee, and Cep offers a brief life history, concentrating on Lee’s contribution to Capote’s research for In True Blood, and then her writer’s block, which her close friends and family hoped would be dispelled by her interest in the Maxwell Case. Lee spent almost a year in Alex City researching the non-fiction book she planned to write. But apart from worrying that she might be sued, she
Lost irerest after rhree hundred pages great read till teheb but too many forks in theroad
Excellent book! Loved Miss Cep's writing style and reading about Nelle Harper Lee. Always a fan of Harper Lee and now a fan of Miss Cep!
Furious Hours is a truly engrossing documentary style book that brings three enthralling stories together around a series of incidents involving a serial killer. Each part includes the perspective of a renowned personality; Reverend Willie Maxwell (Serial Killer Preacher), Tom Radney (Lawyer) and Harper Lee (Author). The structure of the book feels more like 3 shorter stories with a theme, rather than 3 integrated parts in the one story. Each part covers the biographical background of each character with great awareness and commentary. The research details are comprehensive and pursue threads to an extent that sometimes feel quite a distance from the connecting thread. This is especially true for the section detailing Nelle Harper Lee. Part 1, focuses on Reverend Willie Maxwell, a preacher accused, but never convicted, of murdering 5 members of his family in order to benefit from life insurance policies he held on them. The narrative reads very visually, outlining the background, history, facts and supposition, all collated from witness accounts, law-enforcement records and background research. The comprehensive coverage creates a belief that various salient points are explored to their full conclusion. For example, the research into the history and operation of life insurance policies in the US is superbly detailed. The means by which Maxwell escaped prosecution and the autopsy finding on some of the deaths earned him the facade of a Voodoo Preacher. Part 2, the lawyer, Tom Radney, represented Reverend Maxwell in the insurance claim pay-outs and investigations. After Maxwell was shot dead he represented Robert Burns, the man accused of shooting his former client. Radney was a very colourful character that seemed to have a propensity in defending minorities and difficult unsavoury cases. His background into politics and his ability to seduce an audience, particularly a jury, is fascinating. The dialogue and exchanges of courtroom drama are entertaining and cleverly drawn by Casey Cep. The glamorous aspect of the story is that Harper Lee attended the court trial of Robert Burns with the intention of inspiring and generating ideas for the plot and theme of a new story. Her love of real crime, having written To Kill a Mockingbird and having worked with Truman Capote in the research for his book In Cold Blood was excited with this case. Part 3, covers in wonderful detail the biography of Nelle Harper Lee from her childhood with Truman Capote, up through her studies and writing career – before and after To Kill a Mockingbird. The struggles to finally deliver her masterpiece and the issues she faced following the fame, glory and financial success are presented in a very coherent and compelling manner. The Harper Lee content consumes 50% of the book and a major friendship with Capote during many of those years shows two individuals that faced many internal demons. At times I wondered about the structure of the book and whether the parts were tenuously held together with a convenient thread, however, the reading of the material was fabulous with its insights and revelations. The research and its presentation were extensive and to read a factual account of events in a fictional style was impressive. The best non-fiction book I’ve read this year and I would highly recommend it. I’d like to thank Random House UK, Cornerstone and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC version in return for an honest review.