This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Furious Hours by Casey Cep.
A series of suspicious deaths in Alabama in the 1970s were so intriguing and harrowing that Harper Lee set out to write the book about them. She didn’t. Now, Casey Cep has nested three books into one in order to tell the story Lee never did and why she didn’t. The resulting book is more intriguing and harrowing than Lee could’ve imagined. — Keith M.
In the space of eight years, the Reverend Willie Maxwell allegedly murdered two wives, a brother, a nephew, and a stepdaughter for life insurance money. His reign of terror, for which he was repeatedly arrested but never convicted, ended in 1977 at his stepdaughter’s funeral, when the girl’s grief-stricken uncle shot the Reverend three times in the head. The uncle, too, was acquitted. Both men were defended by a dynamic, liberal white lawyer who was sure this was a story for the ages.
Harper Lee, the enigmatic author of To Kill a Mockingbird
, agreed. Famous during her lifetime for publishing just one novel — and getting very rich in the process — and in her death for being at the center of one of America’s most secretive and shady literary estates, Lee hoped that the salacious Maxwell murders and their attendant themes of race, economics, and social justice would be the fodder for her own In Cold Blood
. Lee and the lawyer, Tom Radney, corresponded for years on the project, sharing case notes and research, but the book never materialized. When the Radney family finally contacted the Lee estate to retrieve Tom’s borrowed files in the early aughts, they were told the papers were lost. Given the miraculous discovery of Go Set a Watchman
in 2015, this claim continues to ring hollow.
In Furious Hours
, Casey Cep blends the mysteries of the Maxwell murders with the equally fascinating mystery of Harper Lee and the missing Radney files to stunning effect. Broken into three sections on Maxwell, Radney, and Lee, respectively, Cep scrutinizes the murderers, lawyer, and writer with equal intensity. The writing is wonderfully narrative, allowing the stories to unfold and overlap in a way that feels novelistic while remaining tied to fact by Cep’s scrupulous research and critical analyses of the people and events involved.
As sensational as the Reverend Willie Maxwell’s story is, and as enthralling as Tom Radney’s lawyerly antics are, the real gem of Furious Hours
is Cep’s keen portrait of the hard drinking, reclusive, and sensitive Harper Lee. While no one will ever be able to account completely for Lee’s famed writer’s block, or her obfuscations regarding the Maxwell murder project, Cep does a remarkable job of reaching into Lee’s childhood and adult correspondences to hazard a guess at what made the writer not just turn away from the public, but lie, stall, and abuse the trust of those supporting her work.
With Furious Hours
, Cep has managed what Lee did not; she has written a masterful true crime narrative on par with In Cold Blood
. It is a riveting expose of one of the most mysterious figures in modern American letters, and a perfectly rendered tribute to the same.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here