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.
“Whatever she was writing, Harper Lee wasn’t publishing any of it, but no “wonder” can be dismissed as “one hit” right away. It takes the passage of time for such language to feel applicable, and even then it is a strange and varied category, especially for writers of fiction.”
I wish that The Reverend had become Lee's longed for second work, because she invested months of research into her own 'true crime' study, which would have been far more accurate than Capote's version of the Clutter murders, and her fans would have been spared the dubious publication of Watchman - as Cep writes, 'If it were just a matter of getting another book out the door, after all, she could have handed over Go Set A Watchman, which was sitting in her family's safety deposit box at the Monroe County Bank' - but Harper Lee was obviously daunted by the task of writing about an African American murderer escaping justice at the hands of a white lawyer, only for his killer to be defended by that same lawyer! Lee could have had another bestseller under her belt, but for whatever reasons, whether lack of confidence or overabundance of alcohol, we will never get to read a second original work of genius by the author of Mockingbird.
Recommended, but borrow don't buy.
So much research and apparently sound reporting, some interesting thoughts about the horns of post-Mockingbird Lee's dilemmas, the problems of nonfiction novels and their value, and what Lee might have drawn into a book about Willie Maxwell.
And yet the author failed to compare Lee's fairly well documented feelings about the Atticus of Watchman and the attorneys in Mockingbird to the - let's be frank - weird choices on Tom Radney's part to aid in the insurance claims of Rev. Maxwell under repeatedly underinvestigated circumstances, and for (the one bit of information left out of the book) what fee?
If the author is going to hypothesize that what Lee put together was that Willie Maxwell killed five people to stay ahead of debt, should we not ask whether Radney was working on contingency or hourly, and if he charged the same to other clients - white ones?
I have no opinion, and certainly no information, with which to impugn the late Mr. Radney. My questions concern the possibility that, in the end, it was Harper Lee's loyalty to her friend Capote that prevented her from questioning publicly what he did with "In Cold Blood", and so it is not impossible to suggest that if Lee could not complete a telling of the Maxwell story without exposing to scrutiny and possibly scandal a man who would inevitably be compared with her father and with Atticus Finch, she chose not to tell.
Nelle Lee was a good journalist, yes, but she was a lawyer's child, a lawyer's sibling, and nearly a lawyer herself. Why ever would she tell what would harm anyone near her, especially father, sister, and famous character? And why wouldn't she use a humdinger of a diversion like the Maxwell case to hide the fact that she just wasn't writing anything else, as long as it never forced any broken confidences?
The case of the Alabama minister, a man whose nearest and dearest were murdered for their insurance money. He pretty much got away with it, until the last and during that trial something unexpected happened, and the lawyer who defended him now defended so done else. Nell spent too years in Alabama trying to write this story, but eventually she gave up? Why? After two years?
The book is divided into three sections, the minister snd his heinous activities first, the lawyer next. Nell doesn't appear until halfway through the book. Having never read a biography of Harper Lee, there were some surprising facts I didn't know. Her and Capote, friend from youth, and their joint venture when Capote wanted to write, In Cold Blood. Seems some of that book was not quite accurate.
A slower read, but I thought one that was fascinating.
ARC from Edelweiss.
Part Two details “The Lawyer,” looking at the legal successes and political ambitions of Tom Radney, the lawyer who successfully represents Maxwell against murder charges and helps in securing payments for him from several life insurance companies. When suspicion falls on Maxwell for the death of his adopted daughter, sixteen-year-old Shirley Ann Ellington, Robert Lewis Burns takes matters into his own hands, shooting and killing the reverend at the conclusion of the young girl’s funeral service.
Part Three, “The Writer,” looks at Harper Lee, the stunning success of the iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her struggle to write a second book, and her determination to write “The Reverend,” a true crime story about Reverend Willie Maxwell.
Well-researched, detailed, and meticulous in its reporting, “Furious Hours” details the strange case of Willie Maxwell, but it’s as much about that case as it is about the elusiveness of justice, about truth, and about the unique cultural and political climate of the south. But, most importantly, it’s about the quest of a beloved author to tell that story. Laying bare the writers’ struggles and the costs paid in service to that craft, it is intriguing, compelling, and heartrending. Readers will find it difficult to set this book aside before turning the final page. This is one book that belongs on everyone’s must-read list.
With its combination of true crime and literary heft, this book sounded like it would be right up my alley, but I found the proceedings less engaging than advertised. I didn't find the reverend or his lawyer all that interesting, and there is a lot of extraneous detail (the history of life insurance, for example), that didn't need to be there. Only when the narrative turned to Harper Lee's struggles with writing her second book did the story really speak to me. This book could have been a literary page-turner, but it was not.
Lee was Truman Capote‘s assistant when he gathered material for his book IN COLD BLOOD. So, after she had such success with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, she thought she could successfully write narrative nonfiction, too.
The perfect case presented itself, Lee thought, with the Reverend Willie Maxwell. He was accused of murdering five people for insurance money.
Cep divides this book into three parts. Each part tells a separate story, one for Maxwell; another for Tom Radney, the lawyer who represented Maxwell; and another for Harper Lee.
Probably because she could find so little biographical material on Maxwell, Cep goes into too much detail with her history lessons in the first part. So she almost lost me.
She does better with the second part, where it is obvious that she likes Radney and his family very much. But maybe that is why she does not adequately explain why, after representing Maxwell, Radney then represents his murderer, except to say that everyone is entitled to a defense.
Lee's part is obviously why FURIOUS HOURS is so highly rated. Here Cep presents a biography of Lee and tries to figure her out. Through extensive research, Cep gives several probable reasons that Lee never wrote another book after MOCKINGBIRD, and most particularly why she never wrote her book on Maxwell.
Lee could not figure out how to tell Maxwell‘s story in a way that would capture a reader as fiction does. Cep does present his story, but she does not seem to be so concerned about capturing the reader as she does with ensuring that everything is factual.
But the bigger question is why Harper Lee was never able to complete another book. What was she doing all those years between the immediate explosion of Mockingbird and her death? Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee provides some of the answers to that literary mystery.
Furious Hours is really three books in one. The first half of the book details the life and crimes of one Reverend Willie Maxwell, a preacher in rural Alabama who in the 1970s was accused of murdering five members of his family in order to cash in on the numerous life insurance policies he had purchased on their lives. There is little doubt that Maxwell was a serial murderer, but authorities were never able to collect enough evidence to convict him of any of his crimes. Maxwell, however, did not get away with murder. Instead, he was himself shot at pointblank range while attending services for one of his own victims. The resulting trial of Maxwell’s killer was sensational enough that it caught the attention of Harper Lee, and she traveled from her New York City apartment back to Alabama to see what would happen. She believed that she had finally found her next book, and she was hoping that it would be as big as Truman Capote’s in Cold Blood, a book for which she was largely responsible.
Most of the second half of Furious Hours is a concise Harper Lee biography. But it is the kind of biography that seeks to understand its subject’s mental state as much as the simple facts of her life. Harper Lee was a very private person, with a few close friends and colleagues (most of whom never even saw the inside of her apartment in the decades they knew her), and she liked it that way. She refused to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird or what she was currently working on, and even the neighbors who lived on the same apartment building floor as her for years had no idea that she was a world-famous author. She was also a woman who drank to excess (whether this was a cause or an effect of her writer’s block is debatable) and suffered from depression to the extent that her friends and her two sisters worried greatly about her state of mind. According to Casey Cep, “after three dark decades” Lee’s life finally took a turn for the better when she finally admitted to herself that she would never finish the book about the Maxwell murders – or any other book. The relief she felt was obvious to those around her and it showed in her correspondence.
The final chapter of Furious Hours, titled “The Long Good-Bye,” comprises what I consider to be the book’s third distinct section. This is an accounting of Harper Lee’s final years, including what her life was like after her March 2007 stroke, and it includes the circumstances surrounding publication of the infamous Go Set a Watchman manuscript that in so many ways would have been better off never seeing the light of day.
Bottom Line: Furious Hours is a worthy addition to the study of Harper Lee and her work, and it helps explain why she never completed another book after the overwhelming success she experienced with To Kill a Mockingbird. True crime fans will be intrigued by the utter audacity of a killer like Willie Maxwell, but readers wanting to learn more about why Harper Lee seemed to shut down after Mockingbird are going to find a goldmine here.
It had been many years since Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Readers and publishers had been anxiously awaiting a new book from her. She needed something special to bring her writing talent to life again. When she heard of the stories surrounding the Rev. Willie Maxwell, she believed that this was the book she had been waiting to write and she traveled to Alabama to gather research. She wasn’t new at true crime research as she had been with Truman Capote when he researched and conducted interviews for his book “In Cold Blood”. Lee was never happy with all the untruths contained in Capote’s book and was determined that her book on the Reverend would be more factual. And yet, whatever happened to that book she referred to as “The Reverend”?
This is a top-of-the-line biographical work. I was completely immersed in this story of crime and greed. I’ve always been fascinated by both Harper Lee and Truman Capote though had never read anything about Lee’s involvement in the Willie Maxwell story. Even without Lee’s involvement, Maxwell’s story and all the rumors and superstitions surrounding it make a very compelling, bewitching tale. The addition of Harper Lee in the mix is luscious icing on an already amazing cake. The author does a stunning job of telling the facts of this story. It’s one of those situations where truth is stranger than fiction.
I’m blown away that this is the debut work of this author. She has rendered this story both in a riveting way while keeping it all very factual and true to life. Not only does she relay the facts of the immediate story of Maxwell and Lee but also includes a history of how life insurance began, the ongoing belief in voodoo in the south, how justice doesn’t always triumph in a courtroom and the workings of artistic creativity. I had a very hard time putting this one down and will long remember it.
Most highly recommended.
This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
After assisting Truman Capote with the investigation that led to his publication of [In Cold Blood], Lee decided that she wanted to write a true crime book and since the Reverend Willie Smith’s alleged crimes occurred in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, Lee decided this was the book she wanted to write. For years she worked on a manuscript but never produced a book.
Lee’s life at this time is fairly well documented. She was living in New York City for much of this time and agonized over the fact that years and years had passed and she didn’t have another book to show for it. Publishers rejected her earlier book, [Go Tell the Watchman] and she was convinced that it wasn’t very good at all so it remained in a safe, hidden away. In the meantime, she was drinking heavily and maintaining a very private life while she tried to come up with a book about the Rev. Maxwell.
This book was excellent as an audio book and I was fascinated by the details about Lee’s life (3,000 books on the shelves of her small NY apartment!). Very highly recommended.
Big Tom Radley, Maxwell's long time attorney, agreed to represent Burns in what appeared to be an open and shut case with a verdict of murder. However, Radley's defense of not guilty by reason of insanity, won over the jury and they released that verdict. Burns was remanded to a psychiatric hospital and was released in several weeks, being declared sane.
This case caught the eye and attention of Harper Lee who had, at that point, not written a second novel. She, the daughter of an attorney and a frequent spectator to courtroom goings on, did a lot of research, at one point declaring that she knew more about Maxwell and the murder trial than anyone else, in order to write a book...which never came to fruition.
Author Casey Cep , in three parts, gives us a summary of Maxwell's doings, his murder by Burns and the subsequent trial and finally about Harper Lee's life, her research into the case and the non-existent second book. All three sections were interesting and shed new light (for me) on Lee and her life.
A east but not so fast read, but well worth the time.
I imagine that a nuanced portrayal of what it was like for the black Alabamians living in a community with an openly practicing serial killer enabled by a politically connected white lawyer, could be a book in itself. Cep chooses not to dive deep into communal dynamics here; while she notes that people were scared of Willie Maxwell and discuses the rumors of voodoo that swirled around him, she's mostly concerned with what happened when. Especially disturbing, she reports the lawyer's account of his role -- he received 50% of the money Maxwell collected from insurance policies he held on his victims -- largely without question.
The book picks up once its focus shifts to Harper Lee. How could it not? Witty, smart, charming, perfectionist, swimming in alcohol, channeling her considerable literary skills into correspondence while avoiding her second novel, here is the presence that made "To Kill a Mockingbird" speak to so many. A determinedly private person who outlived her closest circle, Lee is hard to dig into, and Cep is as hampered by the lack of primary sources as any biographer would be. Still, she offers a thoughtful analysis of why Lee couldn't finish her book on Maxwell, or any other book. Her description of the collaboration between Lee, her publisher and her agent that transformed "Go Set a Watchman" into "To Kill a Mockingbird" is particularly illuminating.
At one point Cep quotes Lee's assessment of Willie Maxwell: "He might not have believed what he preached, he might not have believed in voodoo, but he had a profound and abiding belief in life insurance." There's so much contained in that wry statement; reading it made me feel like Cep's account was ultimately lacking in some human element. A welter of details, meticulously reported, the book is admirable, but I didn't particularly enjoy reading it.
After that first part, the book covers Ms. Lee attending the trial, but also goes into her more personal life. There was a good deal about Truman Capote and In Cold Blood, and Harper Lee's involvement in that book. I read In Cold Blood years ago, and thought it very good until I learned how much of it was pure fiction. Ms. Lee's research into it was not part of that fiction. I think I would not have liked Truman Capote in person. And now I think I would have like Harper (Nell) Lee.
She tried so hard to make sense of the story, but never managed to write the book. Rumors and falsehoods about both the murders and the writing of the potential book were abundant. I feel like I got to know Lee a bit more. Reading the story of this private woman also made me regret having bought Go Set a Watchman when it first came out, because I think a younger Lee, the one who had not yet had a stroke and subsequent effects, would never have agreed to its publication.
After collecting all data, she felt it was not something she wanted to write about. The story then, toward the end of the book is a composite of Harper Lee's years of struggling to write To Kill a Mockingbird, and fast forward to her later years. She did write another book,G And, surely, why should she? Her book could was a one-hit wonder.
Though later, another book titled Go Set a Watchman. However, as she was very forthcoming regarding her inability to write another book, I've always doubted she actually wrote a second book. This is my personal opinion. To Kill a Mockingbird can never be outdone. From the first time I read this in 10th grade English class, it remains my all-time favorite book.
I liked [Furious Hours], but felt that it was filled with way too much rambling and did not seem to have a central theme.
I know I am in the minority, but I simply could not get into this book.
Review of the William Heinemann (UK) hardcover edition (May 2019)
I was eager enough about the imminent release of Furious Hours back in early May 2019, that I even had it pre-ordered on Audible Audio and listened to it immediately. There are plenty of unknowns about Harper Lee and about what else she may have written beyond Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird and Casey Cep's excellent research helps to fill in many of the gaps with the story of the unfinished The Reverend project.
I was happy to receive the additional hardcover edition through Shakespeare and Company's Year of Reading 2019 subscription and enjoyed it just as much.