Monday, January 6, 2020
Read by Hillary Huber
Published May 2019 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library
Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted—thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.
Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more years working on her own version of the case.
Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.
In the prologue to Furious Hours we see Nelle (Nell, not Nellie, a mistake so many people made that she decided to use her middle name only on her book) Harper Lee sitting in the gallery, watching the trial of Robert Burns, accused of killing the Reverend Willie Maxwell. And then we don't see her again until the final third of the book. To be honest, I felt a little gypped by this. I was expecting her story to be tied in throughout the book. When Cep finally got back to Lee, though, it was well worth the wait.
There are three parts to this book. First is the story of the Reverend Maxwell, a man who took out literally hundreds of life insurance policies on family members, some of whom didn't even know he'd done it. After two of his wives died, a nephew, and a step daughter, most of his family lived in fear of him. Almost every one believed he was guilty of these murders but the law couldn't seem to find him guilty, thanks in no small part to his lawyer, Tom Radney.
When Radney flips and defends Maxwell's killer, the book moves into the crime story that Harper Lee hoped to make into her In Cold Blood. This part of the book is Radney's and he's every bit as much a character as was Maxwell. Lee worked closely with Radney and he even gave her a giant folio of material for a book about Maxwell and his murder.
But...as we all know, Lee never wrote that book. In the final section of this book, Cep returns to Lee. It's the first time I've ever really felt like I knew Lee and the first time I ever felt like I really understood why she never published another book. It certainly wasn't because she didn't want to write. But by the time she was ready to write the book about Maxwell, most of the people who had supported her when she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird were gone and she appears to have been lost as to how to put the material together.
Any one of the sections of this book could stand on its own and Cep includes a lot of interesting back story (including the origins of life insurance and a background of voodoo) that really add to the book. I definitely recommend this book and the audiobook is especially good. Just know, going in, that this book is not exclusively Lee's story. If you know that, you won't be disappointed.