When Harper Lee Came up Short: ‘Furious Hours’

Casey Cep traces Harper Lee's winding road to defeat in Furious Hours.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Casey Cep
May 2019

In Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, author Casey Cep rarely meets a character whose biography she’s disinclined to write. In fact, her penchant for delving into back stories extends to sociohistorical phenomena, from life insurance to voodoo to Alabama politics. As you might imagine, this renders the narrative rather unwieldy even as it attests to its (first-time) author’s versatility. Nevertheless, Furious Hours is never boring, and proves positively entrancing when Cep finally sets about illuminating the longstanding mystery of an unfinished book by the renowned Harper Lee.

Lee’s subject matter is where the “murder” and “fraud” of Cep’s subtitle come in. In 1977, nearly two decades after the publication of her landmark novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee found herself intrigued by the life and times of the recently murdered William Maxwell, a black Alabamian preacher believed by many to have, as Cep describes it, “mastered the three chief domains of voodoo: love, justice, and death.” Until the feared resident of Alexander City ran out of luck (or voodoo spells), he had by all appearances managed a gruesome feat.

“One by one, over a period of seven years,” Cep tells us, “six people close to the Reverend had died under circumstances that nearly everyone agreed were suspicious and some deemed supernatural.” Time and again, the not-so-good reverend avoided jail. Moreover, as the beneficiary of these unfortunates’ life insurance policies, he made a mint.

Then came the funeral of his final alleged victim, his own stepdaughter. That’s when Maxwell, who had “insisted that he was innocent – of his first wife’s murder, of his neighbor’s death, of his brother’s death, of his second wife’s death, of any crime whatsoever, of the practice of voodoo” – was shot and killed by Robert Burns, a relative of the dead girl.

Cep, who has contributed book reviews to The New Republic, The New Yorker, and other publications, spends a lot of time reconstructing the lives of Maxwell and his (white) attorney, a former Alabama state senator named Tom Radney. (Incredibly, Radney, who received a 50 percent cut of Maxwell’s life insurance policy payouts in return for keeping him out of jail, chose to represent Burns, who had just killed his erstwhile client.)

The author then pursues the same biographical tack with Harper Lee and childhood friend Truman Capote, whom Lee helped immensely with research for In Cold Blood (1966), his “nonfiction novel”. Much of this informational assault turns into overkill, and some of it (at least with regard to Lee and Capote) consists of recycled material. Yet Cep periodically provides analysis at once probing and sensitive. And, though it takes her a good chunk of the book to get there, she does end up launching a gripping investigation of Lee’s ultimately abortive book project on Maxwell.

Aside from her personal demons (which she sought to escape by drinking), and the fact that the literary agents and editors who had played an instrumental role in shaping To Kill a Mockingbird were by now retired or dead, Lee had to contend with two major challenges when embarking on her new literary venture. The first was that she maintained a rigorous distinction between fact and fiction (not for her Capote’s blithe marrying of the two) and “had committed herself to a book built from facts.” Yet, as Cep notes, “when it came to the story of the Reverend Maxwell, those were hard to come by and harder still to verify.”

So scratch the nonfiction option. Well, she could still turn the story into a novel, right? As Cep shows, capturing the convoluted nature of Southern whites’ attitudes toward blacks remained an abiding concern for the Alabama-born-and-raised Lee long after her freshman effort, the novel Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, 2015), was rejected by several publishers for that very reason. Consider a short story she wrote. “‘Dress Rehearsal’ was a story that Esquire had requested but then turned down partly because it was overly didactic, but also because of its complicated depiction of southern racism,” relates Cep. “Like Watchman, it featured, in [Lee’s] words, ‘some white people who were segregationists & at the same time loathed & hated the K.K.K.'”

Though at its center the Maxwell case involved blacks, not whites, it had plenty of the sort of complexity Lee had previously found herself obliged to flatten. Now, however, she was famous and influential enough to have anything she wanted turned into a book; Cep points out that “people joked that Harper & Row would have published Lee’s grocery list.”

So what was the problem?

Setting aside Maxwell’s victims, about whom Lee knew little, she had to grapple with the lack of a truly sympathetic character in this whole sordid drama. Maxwell was, of course, a monster, while his lawyer Radney was a curious mix of honorable (in his opposition to racial discrimination) and unscrupulous (in his pursuit of money). Maxwell’s widow, Ophelia, seems to have been an accessory to at least some of his crimes. And the reverend’s killer, Robert Burns, who was lauded by many for his act, himself had a checkered history. All this would prove very difficult to finesse, even with the free hand afforded by the writing of fiction.

The disappointing result of Lee’s literary efforts with regard to the Maxwell saga has long been common knowledge, though we have Cep to thank for tracing, in Furious Hours, the celebrated author’s winding road to defeat. Despite the fact that “[s]he spent time and money on the research and altered the geography of her life for long spells in order to do the reporting” (at one point even moving to Alexander City), Lee eventually gave up on the book project. She did not take up another.

And her admirers, waiting year after year for something by their beloved author? They never got that promised book on the “voodoo reverend” – but perhaps it is some solace that Go Set a Watchman was published posthumously.

RATING 7 / 10