While Harper Lee fans were almost unanimously disenchanted with the 2015 publication of her eons-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman, they’ll likely be intrigued by Casey Cep’s account of the true crime book that Lee attempted but ultimately failed to write.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee tells the strange saga of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a black Alabama preacher accused of murdering five members of his family for insurance money in the 1970s. Law enforcement officers and insurance officials suspected something was up but had no hard evidence, while Maxwell’s followers whispered rumors of voodoo after his relatives kept turning up dead by the side of the road.
At the funeral of Maxwell’s last victim, his 16-year-old stepdaughter, he was shot dead by one of the girl’s relatives, Robert Burns, who until that moment had been a hardworking, law-abiding family man. Amazingly, despite the fact that hundreds of mourners witnessed the shooting, Burns was ultimately acquitted of his crime.
Attending the trial was Lee, who wrote that Maxwell “might not have believed in what he preached, he might not have believed in voodoo, but he had a profound and abiding belief in insurance.” After studying law at the University of Alabama, Lee was naturally intrigued by the Maxwell story—although she realized “all too well that the story of a black serial killer wasn’t what readers would expect from the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.” She spent nearly a decade working on a manuscript she called “The Reverend” but ultimately abandoned the project, much to the disappointment of many of the citizens of Alexander City, where Maxwell’s murder took place.
Cep, a thorough researcher and polished writer, divides this sprawling tale into three parts: first telling Maxwell’s story, then chronicling the lawyer who once had Maxwell as a client and ultimately represented Maxwell’s killer, and finally explaining the famous novelist’s fascination with and involvement in the case.
Harper Lee fans may find themselves impatient to read about her, as she doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the book, but they’ll be rewarded for the wait. While the myriad mysteries about Lee’s life seem unlikely to ever be resolved, Furious Hours offers an absorbing glimpse into the gifted but guarded life of this enigmatic literary hero.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Casey Cep for Furious Hours.