Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, Casey Cep, Knopf, 2019, 336 pp
This was the February pick for my Bookie Babes reading group and I was not sure I would be happy with it since it is nonfiction and I was longing to discuss fiction. No problem. It was great!
I am surely a fan of Harper Lee. I have read To Kill A Mockingbird and seen the movie. I have read the controversial Go Set A Watchman and the Charles Shields biography Mockingbird. Casey Cep managed to incorporate those books and the movie into a deep diving story of Alabama as it influenced Lee's writing and her life.
Furious Hours has three parts, ingeniously constructed like a puzzle that leads to "the last trial of Harper Lee."
Part One: The Reverend concerns a Black man in Alabama, born in the year that Alabama Power began to build a dam which would flood a large area not too far from Harper Lee's family home and thus bring electricity to the state. Willie Maxwell did become a Reverend, preaching to a wide flock of African American Southern Baptists.
He was also a con man who perfected a life insurance scam. He ensured, then murdered three wives and numerous relatives, after which he collected their death benefits as beneficiary of their policies. He became rich, feared in his community, and suspected of practicing voodoo.
Part Two: The Lawyer. Tom Radney was an Alabama defense lawyer and politician with Presidential aspirations. He became famous for never losing a case. The Reverend Willie Maxwell hired Radney each time he was accused of murder but was never convicted of either murder or fraud.
Part Three: The Writer. Years passed and Tom Radney never made it to the White House due to being too progressive for a Southern politician. When a member of the Reverend's congregation put three bullets into the Reverend's head, that member was charged with murder.
Tom Radney took the case intending to get the murderer of his former, now deceased client, off on an insanity plea. Harper Lee arrived, after years of isolation and no novel to follow To Kill A Mockingbird, watched the trial and determined to write a true crime account of the entire story.
Though the whole book was fascinating from a historical standpoint, Part Three was the best. It was a relief to have Harper Lee finally appear. The amount of biographical material about her in this section stands way above what Charles Shields presented in his biography. I learned more about her relationship with the infamous Truman Capote than I had read anywhere else.
Casey Cep writes perceptively about Harper Lee's well known writers block and then details the extreme effort The Writer made to bring her book to completion. As far as we know she failed though I was left with the hope that, like Go Set A Watchman, it could still someday appear.
If you are a Harper Lee fan and/or a true crime aficionado, you will most likely be as thrilled with Furious Hours as I and my reading group members were. Casey Cep showed herself to be a consummate writer of creative nonfiction. The amount of history, biography, and cultural critique she fit into just a little over 300 pages is a feat. Especially because she made it so easy to follow and so delicious to read.