Harper Lee and Casey Cep’s Furious Hours

As a part of PBS' 2018 program The Great American Read, Americans cast more than 4 million votes for their favorite novels. Overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly, the country voted Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the 1960 book about Atticus Finch, Scout, and "Boo" Radley, as America's favorite novel. The abiding love for Lee and her first book may explain why fans still wonder whatever happened to her followup, not 2015's Go Set a Watchman, but the true-crime novel The Reverend that was to be the famed author's second book. Journalist Casey Cep, in her debut Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee [Knopf], does her best to answer the question of one of the greatest losses to Southern literature.

The subject of Lee's unwritten crime novel, Cep explains, was to be a series of murders in a rural town in Alabama, where a so-called "voodoo preacher" picked off family members — and got rich in the process, before getting murdered himself.

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The Reverend Willie Maxwell was a dapper dresser, a hard worker, and a collector of life insurance policies, Cep writes. He was known around Alexander City for his fine suits, his pulpwood business, and his voodoo spells, which he used, it was said by his neighbors, to murder two of his wives, his brother, and others. He also maintained the lucrative habit of taking out insurance policies on almost everyone he knew. That everyone he knew seemed to come to an untimely end, the reverend could neither help nor explain.

As the years went by without an arrest or conviction, it looked like Maxwell would get away with murder, and not just once. Until, that is, a murder stopped him. At the funeral of his stepdaughter, Maxwell was shot and killed by Robert Burns. When the time came to arrange for his defense, Burns turned to one of the most well-known attorneys in Alexander City — Tom Radney, the attorney who had helped Maxwell collect on all those life insurance policies.

It's no wonder that Lee was aware of the trial of Robert Burns and the grisly circumstances surrounding it. Alexander City is only 150 miles away from Monroeville, where Lee grew up and still spent time. And in Furious Hours, Cep traces Lee's passions carefully, laying out evidence that makes her interest in the Maxwell murders (and Maxwell's subsequent demise) seem inevitable. From her time in law school to her early short stories, many of them explorations of morality hinging on a courtroom scene, Lee seems to have been training all her life to write The Reverend, as she planned to call her book. Lee also had prior experience with true-crime, having helped her childhood friend Truman Capote do research for the New Yorker article that would grow to become In Cold Blood.

What stopped Lee from finishing the novel is where the mystery lies, and Cep revels in unraveling the tangle of facts and rumors. Furious Hours is meticulously researched, and Cep delivers her findings with confidence and an attention that neither shies away from or dwells overlong on the disturbing parts of the story. From the godly murderer and the hometown hero vigilante to the writer who made it her mission to tell their stories, the lives entwined, in fact and in Furious Hours, share a moral ambiguity, and Cep draws out the shared theme, acknowledging complexities other writers might try to burnish away to suit their needs.

For a book that deals with a legal case and insurance fraud, Furious Hours is a page-turner. Cep's roots in journalism are evident in the research, but her prose has a poetic quality: "Ghost bells, war cries, the clanging of slave chains: if ever a land came by its haunting honestly, it is eastern Alabama."

Cep set a challenging task for herself with her debut, confronting the mysteries of one of America's most secretive — and favorite — authors. The challenge makes the success of Furious Hours that much more dazzling. While the book might not answer every question it raises, it tells the story Lee couldn't, proving Cep is a writer to be watched.

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