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
Cornerstone|May 2019|311 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|4*
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.
As Alabama is consumed by these gripping events, it’s not long until news of the case reaches Alabama’s – and America’s – most famous writer. Intrigued by the story, Harper Lee makes a journey back to her home state to witness the Reverend’s killer face trial. Harper had the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research. Lee spent a year in town reporting on the Maxwell case and many more years trying to finish the book she called The Reverend.
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.
This is the story Harper Lee wanted to write. This is the story of why she couldn’t.
Casey Cep tells three stories in Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee – the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them.
In the first half of the book Casey Cep tells the story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, who murdered members of his own family in the 1970s and held his rural community in Alabama, in fear and dread as they believed he was practising voodoo. He was shot dead at the funeral of his step-daughter by a relative, Robert Burns. Maxwell’s lawyer, Tom Radney, who had successfully defended Maxwell for years, then defended Burns, who confessed to the shooting, on the grounds of temporary insanity.
The second half is about the author, Harper Lee, who decided to write a book about all three men. In doing so Cep has written a remarkable biography of Harper Lee, her friendship with Truman Capote, her part in writing his book, In Cold Blood and her attempts to follow up the success of her book, To Kill a Mockingbird.
My favourite part of the book is without doubt the part about Harper Lee. All I knew about her before is that she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, thought to be her only book until Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015. Cep explains that Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, that Lee hadn’t edited or revised, and although it appears to be a sequel it isn’t – it is the story she wrote first.
The section on Lee’s work in helping Capote research his ‘nonfiction novel’ set in Kansas, In Cold Blood is equally as fascinating. They had lived next door to each other in Monroeville and as Cep phrased it ‘before Nelle was out of toddlerhood, she and Truman had become partners in crime and just about everything else.‘ (‘Nelle’ is her first name, the name she was known by for the first thirty-four years of her life, pronounced Nell, not Nellie.) Once they ran out of stories to read they started writing them. Cep goes into detail about the development of crime writing, and how Capote applied the techniques of fiction to nonfiction. Not everyone was happy with this novelisation of crime, not did they believe that Capote’s book was strictly factual, accusing him of producing a sensational novel. Harper Lee minded very much about his fabrications, although she never objected publicly and this caused a rift between them.
So, this presented her with a challenge when it came to writing her book about Maxwell and his crimes, determined it would be based strictly on facts and she spent many years researching and writing her book, provisionally called The Reverend, but never finished it.
The sheer detail of Furious Hours made it quite a difficult book to read in some parts, digressing from the bare bones of the story into details such as the history of insurance, for example. But I was impressed by that detail and by Cep’s meticulous research. The book has an extensive Acknowledgements section, Notes and Bibliography, citing numerous books, journal articles and documentary films. And it has made me keen to read Go Set a Watchman, which although I bought a copy I have not read yet fearing it would spoil my love of To Kill a Mockingbird. I also must get round to reading Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I bought earlier this year, without knowing of Harper Lee’s involvement in the book.
My thanks to Cornerstone for an e-book review copy via NetGalley