Review of “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee” by Casey Cep

This post by Andrew Toler is an addition to our series of Alabama book notes. Toler is a 2020 graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law and worked with Litera Scripta editors as a research assistant in the special collections and archives of the Bounds Law Library.

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

By Andrew Toler

Before the publication of Go Set a Watchman—only eight months before her death—the literary community had come to accept the fact that Harper Lee would likely publish only one book. Upon hearing the news that Lee would, in fact, publish another book, many residents of Alexander City, Alabama assumed that it would be the one that she had worked on for decades about one of the Tallapoosa County city’s most infamous residents.

The book, which Lee abandoned for good in 1987, would obviously never see the light of day—under Lee’s name, at least. In her first book, Casey Cep brings to life both the story that Lee wanted to tell in The Reverend (Lee’s working title for the unfinished book) as well as the story of Lee: her life, struggles, relationships, and complexities. In three parts and 23 digestible chapters, Cep brings to life the story of three main people: the Reverend Willie Maxwell, his attorney Tom Radney, and Harper Lee, the famous author who attempted to write a true crime story about the Maxwell case.Cover image of Furious Hours.

The story that Lee wanted to turn into a true crime book in the style of In Cold Blood—which she helped research with its author, her longtime friend Truman Capote—is chillingly told by Cep in the first part of Furious Hours. Born in 1925, the Reverend Willie Maxwell was a tradesman and lay Baptist minister in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. Although at first respected in the small communities of Tallapoosa County, suspicion began to swirl around Maxwell after several of his relatives and associates—five before he was through—died under suspicious circumstances. The suspicion in the community included allegations of voodoo practices: unfounded allegations that were likely rooted in racism against African-Americans, but which the media—both local and national—devoured. Instead of voodoo, the most likely cause of the deaths was the dark power of life insurance, as Maxwell had life insurance policies on every single victim of the suspicious deaths. As a matter of fact, Maxwell was often in dire financial straits during the time of the deaths—which ranged from 1969-1977. Although the story is better told by Cep, the string of deaths of those close to Maxwell finally came to an end in 1977 with his own abrupt demise—shot to death at the funeral of his last victim.

Before his death, however, Maxwell needed his insurance money. And many life insurance companies refused to pay him, given the suspicious nature of the deaths of those on whom the Reverend held insurance. So the Reverend turned to the courts to get the money that he felt he was owed. Tom Radney, the lawyer that helped Maxwell sue the insurance companies—and also successfully defended him against charges of homicide related to the deaths—is the centerpiece of the second part of Cep’s work.

Radney was also controversial in Tallapoosa County. For one, he represented the derided Maxwell, a business that proved very lucrative for Radney. But he was also a Kennedy Democrat in Alabama’s George Wallace era; indeed, he was a two-time also-ran for the state’s lieutenant gubernatorial office. Radney’s refusal to conform was not enough to keep him from becoming one of the centerpieces of the Alexander City community, however; his law office in downtown Alex City bore the nickname “The Zoo,” derived from the constant buzz of activity surrounding the small-town lawyer. The climax of Cep’s telling of the Radney story concerns a widely-publicized trial that took place after Maxwell’s death—a trial in which Radney successfully defended Maxwell’s killer! This indulgent (and wonderfully ironic) verdict most likely flowed from the community’s sense of relief, now that the threat posed by Maxwell was gone. Call it vigilante justice if you will.

Harper Lee was present at that trial, gathering material for the book that would never materialize. Cep uses this trial as a natural point to transition to the final part of her book: the story of Harper Lee and her effort to write a book about the Maxwell case. Harper Lee and her life is the subject of as much speculation as that of any other American author, motivated largely by speculation concerning her relative silence in the decades following the publication of Mockingbird. Cep, however, distills the facts of Lee’s life into a compelling narrative.

The reasons Lee never published another new book after Mockingbird (Go Set a Watchman is a first draft of Lee’s magnum opus) are legion, and Cep delves into them all. Lee was a perfectionist who struggled with alcoholism and writer’s block. In addition she suffered devastating deaths in her family. Throughout her life, she failed to achieve a comfortable sense of place. All in all, Cep’s narrative of Lee’s life is compelling. But the most impressive aspect of Cep’s work is its perceptive treatment of Lee’s ambient complexities: the complexity of the Maxwell case, the complexities of the mid-twentieth-century American south, and the complexities of Lee’s life.

Cep’s analysis of the racial issues of Wallace-era Alabama is one example of her approach to complexity. Cep’s overall attitude towards southern whites in the era is critical. For example, she opens her book with the building of the Martin Dam—which created Lake Martin, near Alexander City—and notes of the residents: “No longer legally able to subjugate other people, wealthy white southerners turned their attention to nature instead.”[1] Cep more convincingly argues that racial issues may have been one of the barriers standing in the way to Lee’s ultimate completion of The Reverend, as the story of a black man killing his black family members was simply not as palatable as Atticus Finch’s white-savior narrative in Mockingbird.

But Cep realizes the complex nature of the racial ghosts of Alabama and on the whole presents them evenhandedly. Although she takes a critical tone when addressing Lee’s silence during the Civil Rights Movement, Cep points out that although most white southerners were skeptical of integration, most white southerners also hated the KKK and denounced its actions. Cep also addresses the complexities of the jury verdict that concluded the Maxwell case, arguing that such action is “is both romantic and repellant: too practical to condemn, but too dangerous to condone.”

Cep ends her book by detailing the end of Lee’s life and conducts a search into some of the reasons Lee never finished The Reverend. The most obvious reason was simply the absence of the true facts of the case. Lee, for example, was disappointed in the literary liberties her friend Truman Capote took with his book In Cold Blood; the factual inaccuracies were apparent to Lee, who had gathered and organized many of the notes that became Capote’s groundbreaking work. Lee herself stated that her research for The Reverend produced “Enough rumor, fantasy, dreams, conjecture, and outright lies for a volume the length of the Old Testament.” Cep argues, however, that “unfinishedness” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and, in a memorable ending, surmises that “Unfinishedness is an emotional category as much as a chronological and aesthetic one; plenty of artists keep revising and revisiting their work long after the critics and the public have deemed it done.…It is possible that Harper Lee had decided to write for her own satisfaction or for posterity, not her peers, and that the feelings of incompletion and failure the public attributed to her were incongruous with her own experience.” Cep shows that even the idea of incompleteness itself is complex and uses this argument as a natural ending point for her book.

If Cep’s debut work struggles in any area, it may be the same one that Harper Lee struggled with when attempting to write The Reverend; there simply may not be enough factual material for an entire book about the Maxwell case. Consequently, the book suffers at times from disjointedness and redundancy. Furious Hours, for example, suddenly shifts from the telling of the Maxwell case to the biography of Lee; Lee is scarcely mentioned at all (outside of the introduction) for the first 150 of the book’s 276 pages. Cep apparently recognizes this issue, however, and she attempts to overcome it convincingly by transitioning into Lee’s biography at a point when Lee was in Alexander City researching for The Reverend—after which Cep then turns to Lee’s early life.

In all, Cep’s effort in Furious Hours reads like the book Harper Lee herself could not produce. Cep, like Truman Capote in In Cold Blood, uses the literary devices of fiction to make her exposition of the Maxwell case read like a novel. She writes in short, digestible chapters that are easy to follow and often effectively employs tension and resolution. Furious Hours, Cep’s telling of the Maxwell case and Harper Lee’s attempted telling of it, is eminently accessible but blistering, and should be required reading for all Alabama residents, especially those in the legal community.

[1] Editor’s note: The previous construction of similar dams in the Tennessee Valley under the auspices of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority weakens the force and validity of the quoted passage. Anyway, local elites in the 1970s were had no means finished their efforts to subjugate groups and classes of people.