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


2019, 274 pages & notes,

[Spoilers ahead]

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourite books. I used to teach it for Year 10 English, and every year as I re-read it in preparation for teaching it again, I enjoyed it more and more. Even now, just hearing the music in the opening shots of the film brings tears to my eyes.  I didn’t want to spoil my pleasure of Mockingbird by reading Go Set a Watchman, and I came to this book, with Harper Lee’s name prominently circled on the front, with a degree of trepidation. I needn’t have feared.  Harper Lee didn’t end up writing her book about Rev Willie Maxwell, but if she had, I think that it might have sounded somewhat like Casey Cep’s book.  Barak Obama named it as one of his best reads for 2019, so I was keen to finish it in case there were holds on it at the library. Strangely, I could have probably reborrowed it after all. Not to worry- I was so thoroughly engrossed that I happily just settled in for a good long read.

It’s almost three books in one. Part One ‘The Reverend’ tells the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a keen purchaser of insurance policies on the lives of people close to him who were later found dead. There was no evidence, forensic or otherwise, to link him to the deaths, but as the deaths continued to occur and the insurance payouts continued to accumulate, it certainly looked very suspicious. Then, someone close to his last victim took the law into his hand, and the brilliant defence lawyer who had ensured that Rev. Willie Maxwell kept being found innocent, was suddenly defending the man accused of killing his former client.

Part Two, ‘The Lawyer’, shifts its attention to this brilliant defence lawyer, aspiring Democrat politician Tom Radney, who found it difficult to be elected in Alabama. He turned to the law instead, and this is the story of the trial. It goes through the trial day by day, with the moves and counter-moves. In the crowded courtroom, so reminiscent of the courthouse where Tom Robinson was defended by Atticus Finch, there was a small, middle-aged female writer. It was Nelle Harper Lee.

Part Three ‘The Writer’ focuses on Harper Lee. I hadn’t realized to this point how autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird had been, and although I knew of her friendship with Truman Capote, I didn’t realize that he was the real-life Dill Cunningham! This section traces Lee’s life, from childhood in Monroeville, through the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, her struggle to get another novel published, her journalism and assistance to Capote with In Cold Blood and her final days.  In aiming to write her never-published (and perhaps never-written) proposed novel The Reverend, based on Rev. Willie Maxwell’s courtcase, Lee was moving out of her comfort zone. The critique of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird would not apply in this courtcase where an African-American man killed an African-American preacher.

This book is beautifully written, just as evocative as Harper Lee’s work is. I don’t know if the author has tried to channel Lee’s style, or whether it’s a natural sympathy with it.  In a book with three themes like this, it would not be surprising if one section was more engaging than the other, but this is not at all the case.  It is a sensitive depiction of the craft of the writer, and an evocative description of 1970s Alabama.

It is excellent

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

One response to “‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’ by Casey Cep

  1. Pingback: My best reads for 2020 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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