Thursday, August 08, 2019

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

Most readers know that Harper Lee only wrote one book, the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and that she suffered from a complicated kind of writer’s block for the rest of her life. That the rather infamous Go Set a Watchman was published in July 2015 really doesn’t change that fact, becauseWatchman is really nothing more than Lee’s failed first attempt at having a novel published. She was asked to re-write Watchman from the point of view of Scout as a child and to limit the book’s plot to an incident from the 1930s. She did so, and the rest is history. So, Go Set a Watchman is just the failed first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I wish it had never been published. And considering the state of her health in 2015, I have to wonder if Lee truly realized what publishing that failed manuscript would really mean to her legacy– or if she even realized it was being published at all. 

But the bigger question is why Harper Lee was never able to complete another book. What was she doing all those years between the immediate explosion of Mockingbird and her death? Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee provides some of the answers to that literary mystery.   

Furious Hours is really three books in one. The first half of the book details the life and crimes of one Reverend Willie Maxwell, a preacher in rural Alabama who in the 1970s was accused of murdering five members of his family in order to cash in on the numerous life insurance policies he had purchased on their lives. There is little doubt that Maxwell was a serial murderer, but authorities were never able to collect enough evidence to convict him of any of his crimes. Maxwell, however, did not get away with murder. Instead, he was himself shot at pointblank range while attending services for one of his own victims. The resulting trial of Maxwell’s killer was sensational enough that it caught the attention of Harper Lee, and she traveled from her New York City apartment back to Alabama to see what would happen. She believed that she had finally found her next book, and she was hoping that it would be as big as Truman Capote’s in Cold Blood, a book for which she was largely responsible.

Most of the second half of Furious Hours is a concise Harper Lee biography. But it is the kind of biography that seeks to understand its subject’s mental state as much as the simple facts of her life. Harper Lee was a very private person, with a few close friends and colleagues (most of whom never even saw the inside of her apartment in the decades they knew her), and she liked it that way. She refused to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird or what she was currently working on, and even the neighbors who lived on the same apartment building floor as her for years had no idea that she was a world-famous author. She was also a woman who drank to excess (whether this was a cause or an effect of her writer’s block is debatable) and suffered from depression to the extent that her friends and her two sisters worried greatly about her state of mind. According to Casey Cep, “after three dark decades” Lee’s life finally took a turn for the better when she finally admitted to herself that she would never finish the book about the Maxwell murders – or any other book. The relief she felt was obvious to those around her and it showed in her correspondence. 

The final chapter of Furious Hours, titled “The Long Good-Bye,” comprises what I consider to be the book’s third distinct section. This is an accounting of Harper Lee’s final years, including what her life was like after her March 2007 stroke, and it includes the circumstances surrounding publication of the infamous Go Set a Watchman manuscript that in so many ways would have been better off never seeing the light of day.

Bottom Line: Furious Hours is a worthy addition to the study of Harper Lee and her work, and it helps explain why she never completed another book after the overwhelming success she experienced with To Kill a Mockingbird.True crime fans will be intrigued by the utter audacity of a killer like Willie Maxwell, but readers wanting to learn more about why Harper Lee seemed to shut down after Mockingbird are going to find a goldmine here.


  1. Replies
    1. I think you'll be pleased with it, Vicki.

      (I just wrote this review in my local library so that I could turn the book in. There's a long list on hold for this one here.)

  2. Replies
    1. It's fascinating, Jenclair, and will almost certainly make my year-end Top 10 list for nonfiction.