When the kerfuffle over the impending release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman was cluttering up my news feeds in 2015, I confess that I didn’t pay much attention.
Having not grown up in the United States, where Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is often required reading in children’s education, I first read the classic when I was 20. It was part of a yearlong attempt of trying to catch up with what most of my college friends and professors considered canonical. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Casey Cep’s new book, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.
I expected to be charmed by the writing; Cep writes regularly for The New Yorker, and her style is detailed and evocative, sometimes dramatic in a fun way, as when she wrote of Harper Lee that “only Jesus made his father more famous.” As a relatively recent convert to the true-crime genre, I was hopeful that the book would deal responsibly with its subjects, and I wasn’t let down there either. But what I didn’t see coming was the emotional response I would have as I blazed through the last 20 pages of the book — yet there I was, weeping.
Furious Hours begins with a brief prologue that introduces its premise. In 1978, a largely unrecognized Nelle (pronounced Nell, not Nellie — apparently the reason she left the name off her famous book was frustration at the common mistake) Harper Lee sat in a courtroom in Alexander City, Ala., taking notes on the trial of Robert Burns, who was charged with killing the Rev. Willie Maxwell. Oddly, Tom Radney, the lawyer defending Burns — who everyone agreed did shoot Maxwell, as he did so at close range, inside a packed funeral home — had spent years defending Maxwell previously. Lee — who either never finished the book she wrote about the case or stashed a draft away somewhere that even the lawyer now handling her estate can’t find it — took copious notes, interviewed as many people as would speak to her and began considering how she could tell the complicated story of these three men.
Briefly, the story is this: Maxwell, an African-American man living in Alabama, was accused of killing his first wife, Mary Lou, but was exonerated. He cashed in on her life insurance and, apparently, was hooked — several other people in his circle died over the next few years, including his next-door neighbor Abram Anderson, who was married at the time to the woman who soon became Maxwell’s second wife, Dorcus; his brother, John Columbus Maxwell, known as J.C.; Dorcus herself; his nephew James Hicks; and his third (!) wife’s adopted daughter, teenager Shirley Ann Ellington. There was never enough evidence to charge him with any of the deaths after his wife’s; the copious numbers of life insurance policies he had taken out on each of them were considered circumstantial. But his community believed he was a killer, and rumors abounded that he was using voodoo to get away with it.
It was at Shirley Ann’s funeral that Robert Burns had, apparently, had enough, and shot Maxwell. Lawyer Tom Radney, who had also been a prominent, socially progressive politician in Alabama, defended Maxwell in the one and only murder charge brought against him, but went on to help him get insurance money for each of the first five deaths from companies that were trying to maintain that they didn’t meet the criteria for payouts. While Radney said he wouldn’t have defended Maxwell after Shirley Ann’s death, there’s no knowing for sure — but the point is that he chose to defend Maxwell’s killer.
Where Lee failed or gave up on this story, Cep took up the challenge, using Lee’s own notes as well as her own research. Furious Hours is divided into three parts, telling the tales of the reverend, his lawyer, and the famous writer each in turn. Along the way, Cep dives into a dozen obscure topics that she manages to relate with fascinating detail and social commentary — from the racist structures of the 20th century insurance business to the stigmatization of voodoo, one of various spellings and names encompassing ancient religious and spiritual practices brought to the Americas from Africa by their enslaved practitioners who were, often and early, forbidden to practice their faith, causing it to become a secret, fiercely protected underground endeavor.
In the last portion of the book, Cep turns to Lee’s eventual fascination with the Maxwell case, attempting, along the way, to correct many biographical mistakes that her family has had to see printed in unauthorized accounts of Lee’s life. Cep explores Lee’s complexities without flinching, recognizing them as human: On the one hand, she was eager to criticize the Southern tendency to erase or rewrite inconvenient history and the less-than-obvious racist ideologies that she saw around her, wherein people both disavowed the KKK and still favored segregation; on the other hand, she never came out in support of the civil rights movement. Another example: She helped Truman Capote with the majority of his research and note taking for In Cold Blood and was deeply troubled by the inaccuracies and whole-cloth inventions that ended up in the book, yet still wrote a glowing profile of him prior to its release. And, of course, Cep shows Lee’s complicated relationship to writing, the success that seemed to block her forever after, and the human flaws and foibles that could never match the lionized reputation she held.
Each section of the book could stand on its own, making it feel, in a way, like three books in one. But, ultimately, Furious Hours delivers a gripping, incredibly well-written portrait of not only Harper Lee, but also of mid-20th century Alabama — and a still-unanswered set of crimes to rival the serial killers made infamous in the same time period.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.