Furious Hours by Casey Cep

Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.

Rev Willie Maxwell

As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.

One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.

Zora Neal Hurston beating a hountar, or mama, drum in Haiti 1937.

For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.

In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.

Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.

Harper Lee

Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.

Casey Cep

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)

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50 thoughts on “Furious Hours by Casey Cep

  1. I never read In Cold Blood, but perhaps I should. You make an excellent case for it, FF! This is another of those books that must be “appreciated” in the time in which it was written. After all, no one living in those times of white supremacy could even imagine how times would change a hundred years later.

    • Yes, it’s been total coincidence that I read all four of these so close together but they do all work very well together as a way to look at different aspects of that time period. Yes, we’re too quick to judge people by today’s standards, forgetting that somewhere in the future someone will be judging us too! I do find outdated attitudes off-putting sometimes, but it all depends on the writing.

  2. I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear you liked this so well, FictionFan! I’ve been hearing nothing but excellent things about it, and it does sound both well-researched and we’ll-written. That’s not easy to do! Such interesting people involved in the case, too. Ok, I will have to tell my TBR to look the other way so I can add it.

    • I haven’t seen a negative review of it either, and no wonder, since it’s so good! It would have worked well as a standard true-crime book – the Maxwell case is interesting in itself – but the addition of all these famous writers make it extra special, and Cep certainly convinced me that she knows what she’s talking about. Your TBR will thank you… 😉

  3. I’ve only read TKAM, so your thoughtful review makes me want to line up the others as you have them listed! In Cold Blood has been on my radar for years (along with Breakfast at Tiffany’s). I guess this one’s going to have to go on my wish list, as well. *sigh*

    • And Go Set a Watchman! 😉 It’s pure coincidence that I read all these so close to each other but it turned out to be a great reading experience, and this book ties them all together so well. If you get to them, I hope you get as much pleasure out of them as I have… 😀

    • I know – amazing, isn’t it? Almost begging for people to be tempted into murder. It seems to have purely been for profit – insurance companies wanted to sell more policies and there was no real regulation at the time. Terrifying!

    • Aha! So I can’t be blamed this time! 😉 I think you will love it – it’s very good as a true-crime book, but all the stuff about Lee and Capote makes it extra interesting to all us bookish people. I look forward to hearing what you think of it! 😀

  4. You’ve convinced me; I shall make time for an immersion although quite when remains vague. I’ve read Mockingbird. Would you suggest the other two books and finally Cep’s? I’m tempted to start with this one.

    • Hurrah! My own immersion was pure chance but I found the four books work so well together – it’s been a great experience reading them all together-ish. I’d read In Cold Blood next, then this one, then Watchman. I think I might have enjoyed In Cold Blood less if I’d read this first since it goes into that book’s flaws. And I don’t think I’d have enjoyed Watchman half so much if I hadn’t read this first and got a better idea of what Lee actually wanted to write about before her agent and publishers started pushing her in a different direction…

      • Thank you, FF, that’s very helpful. I had planned to read TKaM and Watchman this summer, for once a fortunate turn of events that it didn’t happen. I’m looking forward to this immensely! Eventually! 😂

  5. Wow! I’ve got In Cold Blood on my list, so will hurry up and get to that before Furious a Hours. I got the feeling from Mockingbird by Charles Shields that Harper Lee wasn’t enormously popular but that the people who she loved and who loved her were genuine. More than slightly horrified at the thought of people taking out insurance on their people’s lives without their knowledge!

  6. This sounds fascinating – I haven’t read In Cold Blood yet, thinking it would be too dark for me, but this book sounds interesting enough that I might pick it up just to get the experience of reading this with this proper context.

    • There are bits of In Cold Blood that are quite harrowing but not too much, I felt, and it’s very well written. I had a couple of reservations about it, but I do think it’s well worth reading, and especially if you’re interested in reading this one… I found knowing both Mockingbird and In Cold Blood really made me appreciate this even more.

  7. I’ve not read any of these, in fact have for a long time resisted Mockingbird just because of its vaunted status as a modern classic. But your very able dissection of this study has persuaded me that I must remedy this, and soon! 🙂

    • I like Mockingbird very much but maybe not quite to the degree lots of people do. When I re-read it recently I wondered if it’s beginning to show its age – the portrayal of the black people sat uneasily with me. I actually think that, in time, Watchman may come to be considered the better book – it’s not as polished, but it seems to me to be rather more honest about both the white and black characters…

    • It was pure chance that I’d re-read Mockingbird and read In Cold Blood very recently before reading this, but that definitely enhanced my reading of this, and this made me reassess both of them. And then led me on to read Watchman. Great stuff – I do enjoy literary serendipity!

  8. I read this outstanding review last night and thought I commented then? I have to read this book asap. Wow, FF. You know I have to read anything Harper Lee related, and it sounds like you were pleased with how the author portrayed it all. Can’t wait! TBR + 1. (I gathered up 40 books for the library donation, but I’m not done yet! I still am out of room!)

    • Bah! WordPress! It’s great when it works! I think you’d love this – she’s honest about Harper Lee’s flaws but she’s clearly an admirer herself so it’s a very affectionate portrayal overall. (I’m impressed! Though it looked like there were way more than 40 on those stairs… keep at it! 😉 )

  9. Those insurance policies? Yikes! I must say I love the fact that you included a suggested reading order at the end of your post, this is EXTREMELY helpful to us readers and such an amazing idea. And I had no idea Harper Lee was that much of a drinker…she lived to be pretty old though, so guess it wasn’t too bad for her health LOL

    • I know – isn’t it crazy? Like just tempting people to murder each other! Thank you – I’m glad you thought it was helpful! I just accidentally read them in that order and realised it had worked out perfectly. Ha! She didn’t seem to be an alcoholic exactly – just a binger. Apparently she could always stop when she wanted, and eventually stopped drinking altogether…

  10. I’ve been waiting for this review! This gives a great sense of the book and its focus. I’m not always drawn to this type of true crime but I think I’m going to follow your lead and read this one and then try Go Set a Watchman. Thanks! (Also, I know I shouldn’t, but I had to laugh that the shooter’s name was Robert Burns.)

    • I like true crime when it sheds light on the society of the time rather than just focusing on the mind of the killer. But this one will definitely work for anyone bookish too – she gives a great picture of what it would have been like to be a writer at that time. Haha – I laughed at the Robert Burns thing too. I had to stop myself from quoting poetry. 😉 I do hope you enjoy these as much as I did – it was pure luck that I’d read Mockingbird and In Cold Blood so recently but it made this one even more interesting.

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