Book Review: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Casey Cep solves the mystery of the true crime book that Harper Lee never wrote

<i>Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee</i> by Casey Cep

There's usually a bit of mystery about a murder. It doesn't have to be a true whodunit – especially if it's nonfiction, reported after the facts have been paraded around in court – but it's de rigueur to have the motives and means unspooled slowly so the reader gets to play detective. Coyness, however, doesn't fit the crime at the heart of Casey Cep's stunning first book, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. After all, how much gauze can you pull over a killing at a wake in front of 300-plus witnesses, all of whom knew exactly why the trigger was pulled?

This immersive and precise look at a 1977 Alabama murder and the reclusive writer who almost penned a book about it doesn't devote even one of its three sections to Robert Burns, the man at the heart of the titular trial. Rather, Cep guides us skillfully from the life of the victim, the Rev. Willie Maxwell, himself suspected of committing five murders for insurance money; to "I'm-no-big-city-lawyer" Tom Radney, who went from being an idealistic Southern progressive politician to defending Maxwell to defending Maxwell's killer; and then to author Harper Lee, whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird continues to cast a long shadow in the literary community. Furious Hours' overall disregard of chronology ("The Reverend," "The Lawyer," and "The Writer" each have their own timeline – you could end one section in the late Seventies and then boomerang back to the Forties when you start the next) might sacrifice a little momentum, but you get an excellent return for it: depth and crystal-clear storytelling.

Thoroughness may not, at first glance, seem like the sexiest trait, but throughout her debut, Cep's intellectual curiosity is infectious. Under her guidance, tracing the history of life insurance from the Great Fire of London to the U.S. in the 1970s doesn't just seem necessary to understanding why and how Maxwell may have bumped off his family members, but also deeply, genuinely fun. There's something egalitarian in the way Cep dispenses information, something joyful in the way she executes deep dives, and always with a keen eye for how the weight of history acts on her subjects and her audience.

Harper Lee's is the name bound to draw many people to Furious Hours, and for her, Cep reserves not only precision but also profound generosity. If the murder wasn't a mystery, Lee's inability to produce a second book (Go Set a Watchman, the source material for To Kill a Mockingbird, notwithstanding) certainly is, and a haunting one. Cep has no simple solution to offer us, but her rich look at a moment in the criminal justice system of the American South, Lee's complicated life, and a frank wrestling with the work of writing is just as satisfying.


Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

by Casey Cep
Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More true crime
Exploring the Life and Death of Jennifer Cave in True Crime Podcast <i>The Orange Tree</i>
Exploring the Life and Death of Jennifer Cave in True Crime Podcast The Orange Tree
Former UT students Tinu Thomas and Haley Butler find a history of murder on campus

David Sotelo, Aug. 28, 2020

Uncorking the Story to the True Crime/Comedy Podcast <i>Wine & Crime</i>
Uncorking the Story to the True Crime/Comedy Podcast Wine & Crime
Amanda Jacobson pairs vino reviews with different varietals of lawbreaking

Rosalind Faires, July 12, 2019

More July Is Crime Month
Austin Author Chandler Baker Talks About Creating a Novel for the #MeToo Movement
Austin Author Chandler Baker Talks About Creating a Novel for the #MeToo Movement
Writer of Whisper Network offers a healthy dose of righteous indignation

M. Brianna Stallings, July 26, 2019

Road Tripping With a Serial Killer in <i>Paper Ghosts</i>
Road Tripping With a Serial Killer in Paper Ghosts
As well as being a riveting psychological thriller, this tale of a road trip across Texas with a serial killer shows the state in an intimate light

Elizabeth Cobbe, July 19, 2019

More Arts Reviews
<i>The Swallowed Man</i> by Edward Carey
The Swallowed Man
The Austin author's rich and strange take on Pinocchio has Geppetto tell the story from the belly of the giant fish

Robert Faires, Feb. 5, 2021

<i>Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents</i> by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
In her second book, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines and breaks down the unacknowledged social structure baked into our country

Rosalind Faires, Nov. 13, 2020

More by Rosalind Faires
Top Fiction of 2020 for the Angry Girls
Top Fiction of 2020 for the Angry Girls
Rosalind Faires chooses several tales of righteous indignation

Dec. 18, 2020

<i>Running</i> by Natalia Sylvester
Running by Natalia Sylvester
Natalia Sylvester’s YA debut makes the political personal

Oct. 30, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

July Is Crime Month, Crime Month 2019, true crime, Harper Lee, Casey Cep, Alabama, Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Radney, Robert Burns, Willie Maxwell, Knopf

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle