Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
“Sometimes one perfect book is all we can ask for,” said Lucas Wittmann in Time. After To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and became an American classic, author Harper Lee disappeared from the spotlight, never to write another published book. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1977, a sensational murder case in Alexander City, Ala., inspired her to attempt a book-length journalistic account that she labored over for years before eventually abandoning. “But from that void comes a great gift,” because Casey Cep’s new book about the project is a marvel. The first-time author has given us “the fullest story yet of Lee’s post-Mockingbird life,” capturing along the way the toll that great writing exacts.
“It takes Cep about five pages to eliminate from the reader’s mind the possibility that the source of Lee’s literary problems was lack of material,” said Michael Lewis in The New York Times. At a funeral for a 16-year-old girl, a black preacher suspected of being her killer is shot dead in front of 300 people. William Maxwell, the victim, had become locally notorious for accepting life insurance payouts on family members, including two wives, who’d been found dead beside one road or another. And Cep handles the content masterfully. Except that we have no doubts from the start about Maxwell’s guilt, and still get half a book about him, said Emily Bobrow in The Wall Street Journal. “When Harper Lee finally does arrive, it’s a relief.” The rest is a “brisk and lively” account of Lee’s life and her struggle to write a second book worthy of her standards and reputation.
Furious Hours becomes “an ingeniously structured double mystery,” said The Economist. We may never know how far Lee got with her book about Maxwell—and about the white lawyer who first defended Maxwell in the insurance cases and then defended Maxwell’s killer. But there’s a nice symmetry in seeking answers about an elusive book about unsolved crimes. If the final page leaves us feeling slightly unsatisfied, that is because we crave resolution, and Harper Lee’s story, like Maxwell’s, “stubbornly resists a neat ending.” ■