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

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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

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