”Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee” by Casey Kep, Knopt Publishing, 2019, 339 pages
A series of rural Alabama murders inspired Harper Lee to write again, years after the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee, still uncomfortable over the embellishments of her friend Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” wondered whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired.
An Alabama preacher Willie Maxwell serves several churches in and around Alexander City. In his large family, he takes out insurance policies with himself as the beneficiary. Over several years, five family members die under mysterious circumstances, all with large life insurance policies held by Maxwell.
Death surrounds the Rev. Maxwell. After his first wife’s murder, four more were inexplicably found dead. Locals blamed voodoo, but a deeper investigation pointed to insurance fraud. The Reverend had a deep belief in insurance and with Tom Radley’s help, was able to collect thousands of dollars.
On June 18, 1977, Maxwell was shot dead in front of 300 people at his stepdaughter’s funeral in Alexander City. Harper Lee intended to write about the trial, but in Alexander City she finds only myths, lies, and her own insecurities.
By many accounts, Lee wrote a book and may have rewritten it as fiction, though no manuscript has ever been found. As to what happened to the years of work Lee did on the story, Lee was so elusive that even her mysteries have mysteries: not only what she wrote, but how; not only when she stopped, but why.
Casey Cep relates the history of courthouses, voodoo and Alabama politics. She delivers edge-of-your-seat courtroom drama while reinventing Southern Gothic into a work of narrative nonfiction.
In addition, she gives us the story of Lee’s post-Mockingbird life in New York: boozy, yet full of books and theater. She tells a crime story, but also says a great deal about the racial, cultural and political history of the South.
One reviewer says, “It’s been a long time since I picked up a book so impossible to put down. ‘Furious Hours’ made me forget dinner, ignore incoming calls, and stay up reading into the small hours.”