In the late 1970s, while still struggling to write a follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird, novelist Harper Lee went to Alexander City, AL, to learn everything she could about the mysterious life and public death of Willie Maxwell, Jr. Maxwell, a local preacher, rumored voodoo priest, and suspect in multiple murders, was shot and killed in front of a room full of witnesses at the funeral of one of his alleged victims. This debut by Cep is the fascinating account of Maxwell, his lawyer Tom Radney, and Lee's determination to tell their story in a book called The Reverend. However, this is not a work specifically about Lee; the compelling stories of Maxwell and his lawyer comprise nearly half of the text. There are no major secrets revealed here, as Lee's work on the Maxwell story was discussed in Charles Shields's Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, and it's still uncertain how much of The Reverend Lee ever wrote. Yet, Cep masterfully builds the suspense throughout this thoroughly researched and enjoyable account. VERDICT Recommended for all who enjoy true crime and legal dramas and essential for those hoping to learn more about Lee's enigmatic life.—Nicholas Graham, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Journalist Cep makes her debut with a brilliant account of Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write a true crime book. Part one follows the career of Alabama preacher Willie Maxwell as five family members over several years die under mysterious circumstances, all with large life insurance policies held by the reverend, rumored also to be a voodoo priest. On June 18, 1977, Maxwell was shot dead in front of 300 people at his stepdaughter’s funeral in Alexander City, Ala. Part two focuses on his killer’s trial later that year, which Harper Lee attended. Along the way, Cep relates the history of courthouses, voodoo, Alabama politics, and everything one needs to know about the insanity defense. Part three charts the To Kill a Mockingbird author’s efforts to write about the trial, but in Alexander City she finds only myths, lies, and her own insecurities. By many accounts, Lee wrote a book and may have rewritten it as fiction, though no manuscript has ever been found. As to what happened to the years of work Lee did on the story, Cep notes, “Lee... was so elusive that even her mysteries have mysteries: not only what she wrote, but how; not only when she stopped, but why.” Meticulously researched, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Lee and American literary history. Author tour. Agent: Edward Orloff, McCormick Literary. (May)
She explains as well as it is likely ever to be explained why Lee went silent after To Kill a Mockingbird. (The clue’s in Cep’s title.) And it’s here, in her descriptions of another writer’s failure to write, that her book makes a magical little leap, and it goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.” —Michael Lewis, The New York Times Book Review
"A compelling hybrid of a novel, at once a true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and miniature biography of Harper Lee. If To Kill a Mockingbird was one of your favorite books growing up, you should add Furious Hours to your reading list today.” —Southern Living
"Cep delivers edge-of-your-seat courtroom drama while brilliantly reinventing Southern Gothic…The result is an enthralling work of narrative nonfiction—Cep’s debut—and a poignant meditation on a book that never was."—O Magazine
"[A] well-told, ingeniously structured double mystery—one an unsolved serial killing, the other an elusive book—rich in droll humour and deep but lightly worn research"
“A brilliant take on the mystery of inspiration and the even darker mysteries of the human heart.” —People
“What I didn't see coming was the emotional response I'd have as I blazed through the last 20 pages of the book — yet there I was, weeping…A gripping, incredibly well-written portrait of not only Harper Lee, but 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, NPR
“Cep’s book is a marvel. In elegant prose, she gives us the fullest story yet of Lee’s post-Mockingbird life in New York–boozy, unproductive, modest despite her means, yet full of books and theater–and her quest in Alabama, where she grew close to Radney and his family, to tell the Maxwell story. Cep’s is an account emotionally attuned to the toll that great writing takes, and shows that sometimes one perfect book is all we can ask for, even while we wish for another.” —Lucas Wittmann, Time
“[E]xemplary literary true crime…Gripping and meticulous, Cep’s work doesn’t make us choose between fidelity and style.” —Boris Kachka, Vulture
“In Cep’s thrilling account of an Alabama murderer, his killer, and the lawyer who got them both off, we get to see the To Kill a Mockingbird author hot on the trail of some slippery characters while she struggles to write a worthy follow-up to her iconic novel.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Tells a crime story but also says a great deal about the racial, cultural and political history of the South. As a portrayal of the life of a writer, the section on Lee is by itself worth the price of admission.” —John Glassie, The Washington Post
“Casey Cep’s Furious Hours does something wholly unique: in exploring the bizarre circumstances linking a breadth of crimes—murder and insurance fraud, the failures of the criminal justice system, and the legacy of racism in the South—Cep probes at the mystery of a place built on slave labor, where injustice has seeped into the soil and the courtroom itself is an engine of inequity.” —Camille Leblanc, CrimeReads
“This riveting account of both the murders and Lee’s reporting, writing, and editing process is fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at one of the South’s cherished creative minds.”—CJ Lotz, Garden & Gun
"Fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful.” —Adam Morgan, Longreads
“In Furious Hours, Casey Cep gives readers a brilliant history of the life-insurance industry (it's more exciting that it sounds!), a riveting true crime story, and a dazzling biography of one of America's most beloved writers.” —Bustle
"It’s been a long time since I picked up a book so impossible to put down. Furious Hours made me forget dinner, ignore incoming calls, and stay up reading into the small hours. It’s a work of literary and legal detection as gripping as a thriller. But it’s also a meditation on motive and mystery, the curious workings of history, hope, and ambition, justice, and the darkest matters of life and death. Casey Cep’s investigation into an infamous Southern murder trial and Harper Lee’s quest to write about it is a beautiful, sobering, and sometimes chilling triumph."
—Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk
Cep's debut recounts how a series of rural Alabama murders inspired Harper Lee to write again, years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Death surrounded the Rev. Willie Maxwell. Following his wife's mysterious murder in 1970, four more of Maxwell's family members were inexplicably found dead within seven years. Locals blamed voodoo, but a deeper investigation pointed to fraud: Maxwell, said Lee, "had a profound and abiding belief in insurance," and he collected thousands in death benefits. He was a suspect in his wife's case (charged and curiously acquitted), but years later, before the police could make another arrest, he was killed in a public fit of vigilante justice. In a further twist, the same lawyer who helped clear Maxwell's name decided to represent his killer. Lee, still uncomfortable over the embellishments of her friend Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, wondered "whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired, and whether it could be as successful as the far-bending accounts of her contemporaries." In this effortlessly immersive narrative, Cep engagingly traces how Lee found the case and began—and ultimately abandoned—a project she called The Reverend. Cep writes with the accessible erudition of podcast-style journalism; she breathes not only life, but style into her exhaustive, impressively researched narrative. She relies heavily on the backstories of each of her narrative threads, which transforms her book into a collection of connected preambles. Short histories of fraud, Southern politics, and urban development take shape alongside a condensed biography of Lee. This kind of storytelling may feel disjointed, but there's a reason for it: By fully detailing the crimes before Lee even appears, Cep allows readers to see the case through Lee's eyes and recognize its nascent literary potential. Above all, this is a book about inspiration and how a passion for the mysteries of humanity can cause an undeniable creative spark.
A well-tempered blend of true crime and literary lore.