Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Leeby Published 07 May 2019
|Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.pdf|
|Publisher||Random House Large Print Publishing|
The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.
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 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.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee Reviews
This is one of the best nonfiction books I've read this year.
"Furious Hours" is both the story of a true crime in 1970s Alabama and the story of famous writer Harper Lee. I was interested in the particulars of the crime, which involved a sketchy preacher who was linked to a series of suspicious deaths, and I just lovedlovedloved the section on Harper Lee, which included interesting details of her longtime friendship with Truman Capote.
I'm impressed with how Casey Cep managed this feat: she wrote a fascinating true-crime narrative, which Harper Lee had been investigating as a potential book topic, and then Cep writes a magnificent section on Lee's struggles to become a writer, and later, her struggles with her fame, her drinking problem, and her inability to produce any more books.
It's an incredible work of nonfiction. Highly recommended to both fans of true crime and those who like reading about writers.
"We are bound by a common anguish." -- Harper Lee
"At its core, the Burns trial had turned on two kinds of primitivism: belief in the supernatural and belief in vigilante justice. It wasn't the first time that a white jury in Alabama had heard compelling evidence of murder yet reasoned their way to an acquittal. Vengeance is as old as violence, and many white southerners can trace their moral genealogy through family feuds and gentlemen's duels, across rivers and oceans and all the way back to medieval courts and biblical dynasties."
"Whatever she had told herself before about law school — about acquiring discipline or fulfilling her father's dreams — it wasn't enough anymore. Six weeks shy of graduation, Nelle Lee dropped out. It had become obvious to her that a writer is someone who writes, and also that sooner or later everyone disappoints their parents: better, she figured, to get started on both."
"Capote was writing full-time, and his stories seemed to move effortlessly from his mind to the pages of magazines and the shelves of bookstores. But Nelle was busy earning a living, covering the costs that even the most frugal New York City existence incurs, and she had become distracted by the city itself. Like a lot of small-town bookworms, she was too well-read to be a true country bumpkin, but too country, even after Montgomery and Tuscaloosa, to be anything but mesmerized by Manhattan."
[Personal Note: I hadn't realized before just how important Harper Lee was when Capote was working on his book "In Cold Blood." After reading "Furious Hours," it seems clear that Capote wouldn't have been able to write that book at all without Lee's research assistance and her ability to make friends with the folks in Kansas.]
"More than mere transcripts, Lee's voluminous notes are those of a careful observer, a keen legal mind and a tragicomic chronicler of American history."
"To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It's sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not. Every day. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour to writing. In fact, it's heartbreak most of the time." -- Harper Lee, 1966
"Nothing writes itself. Left to its own devices, the world will never transform into words, and no matter how many pages of notes and interviews and documents a reporting trip generates, the one that matters most always starts out blank."
"Most of us in the Western world make our own lives ... Life doesn't make us. We create our events. Nobody asked us to be born, but while we're here we should do the best we can with what we have." -- Harper Lee
Divided into three parts, Furious Hours tells the true story of Alabama serial killer the Reverend Willie Maxwell. In the 1970’s he was accused of murdering five family members in order to collect the life insurance money. With the help of a very clever lawyer, ( although rumour had it that Maxwell used voodoo to aid his success) he escaped justice, but at the funeral of his last victim, he was shot dead by one Robert Burns.
The first part of the book illustrates the life of Willie Maxwell, the murders, the fear that he induced in the community because he was thought to use voodoo, and the revelation that he took out insurance policies on almost everyone he had close contact with.
The second part introduces Maxwell’s lawyer Tom Radney who strangely also represented Maxwell’s killer, and despite there being hundreds of witnesses in the church, Robert Burns walked free. Present at Burns trial was none other than Harper Lee ( To Kill a Mockingbird). She kept a low profile and spent a year gathering material for a book she was to write about this strange case, but it was a book that never came to fruition.
The third part of the book tells the story of Harper Lee - her relationship with Truman Capote, the choices she made that shaped her future, and the struggles that she had with her writing.
The author has painted a wonderfully in depth portrait of this great writer, and she also illustrates the cultural and political climate of the times. The research carried out to produce Furious Hours must have been immense - the practice of law and the history of life insurance are just two of the things we learn about in great detail ( perhaps a little bit too much for me) however it was a fascinating read that shone a spotlight on this somewhat mysterious writer, but I personally found the first part of the book featuring Willie Maxwell the most intriguing.
*Thank you to Netgalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone for my ARC, for which I have given an honest unbiased review in exchange *
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep is a 2019 Random House publication.
The case involving the Reverend Willie Maxwell is one I was completely unfamiliar with. I never heard of him, or Robert Burns or their attorney, Tom Radney- until I picked up this book. As this was all unchartered territory for me, I found the case riveting. I could hardly believe what I was reading. The ease in which Maxwell purchased life insurance policies, not just for relatives, but for neighbors too, is staggering. That he got away with murder, time and time again, is astounding. But his luck finally ran out, when he was shot to death, at a funeral, in front of a slew of witnesses, by Robert Burns, a relative of one of Maxwell’s many victims.
Ironically, Burns would be defended by the same attorney that defended Maxwell- Tom Radney. It is also interesting to discover that famed author, Harper Lee, was once seriously considering writing a true crime story based on this case and went so far as to attend Burns’ trial, doing a little legwork, and even conducted a few interviews with those closely associated with the case.
Obviously, no book about the reverend Willie Maxwell ever surfaced.
Divided into three segments, the first of which tells how easily Willie Maxwell purchased life insurance policies, naming himself the beneficiary, then murdered the insured person and collected the money. He was a preacher in the more traditional way, but was rumored to practice voodoo, as well. This is a truly strange story and I was horrified by it. Then came the story of Robert Burns which is also compelling. The trial parts are good, and the way it all turned out is fascinating.
The second segment is centered around the attorney, Tom Radney, who defended both Maxwell and Burns. Radney was a central figure in both cases, and even had a hand in helping Lee with her research, probably hoping to find himself prominently featured in her book. I understand why the author spent a little time detailing the man’s career and life, but this part was a too extensive, and a bit boring.
The third part of the book is mostly a short biography of Harper Lee. There was nothing in this bio that I had not heard before and has nothing whatsoever to do with this case. The only thing I didn’t know is that she had followed this case, started a manuscript for a book about it, at some point, but it never came to fruition.
A book about this case, fully fleshed out, with a chapter about Tom Radney and the bit about Harper Lee, tossed in as an interesting piece of trivia, would have been good all on its own. Yet, somebody, somewhere, decided to market the book using Harper Lee’s name to generate interest and boost sales. I’d label that as exploitation, to be honest, but that’s just me.
I had mixed feelings about the book, as I think the title is misleading and Lee’s connection to the story is nothing more than an interesting aside, in my humble opinion, which was a major turn off and even angered me a little. However, it looks like I’m in the minority on this one.
That said, the criminal case is compelling and I’m glad I read this book for that reason. I’m not sure how to rate this one due to my mixed feelings about it. Although, I’m still conflicted, I’m going to go with 3 stars for this one.
Furious Hours is an engrossing documentary style book, which brings three enthralling stories together around a series of events involving a serial killer. Each part focuses on 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. That's only a slight criticism as the narrative is great and the content is normally engrossing, but it does feel a separate piece of work.
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 coverage creates a sense 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 thoroughly investigated but verges on overindulgence. 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 had her deeply intrigued in 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 compelling and presented in a very coherent 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 difficult internal demons but love for literature. She reflects on her childhood friendship ending as
“Truman did not cut me out of his life until after In Cold Blood was published. I never knew why he did it, the only comfort I had was in the discovery that he had done the same to several others, all faithful old friends. Our friendship, however, had been life-long, and I had assumed that the ties that bound us were unbreakable.”I also found it quite fascinating that To Kill a Mockingbird came from the amalgamation of 2 shorter stories; Go Set a Watchman and The Long Good-Bye. Interesting that her second and last novel was released on July 14, 2015, 56 years after her first book, and used the title Go Set a Watchman. Nelle Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016.
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 provided great 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 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.
Additional Book Ratings
Cover Design: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Proofreading Success: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Quality of Book Formatting: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Book Format/Status: Kindle/ARC
Number of Pages: 311
Number of Chapters: 24 (approx 13 pages per chapter)
Absolutely fabulous and gripping! The novel tells three incredible stories of Reverend Maxwell, a murderer of five members of his own family, of Tom Radney, a lawyer who defended both Maxwell and the man who eventually killed Maxwell, and of Harper Lee, who came to the trial and followed it in hope of writing another novel. Personally, I found Part 3 most interesting as I knew next to nothing about the author of one of the greatest American classics. Casey Cep wrote a gem in the category of non-fiction although actually her book reads like the best fiction.