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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Review

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Casey Cep is not the deceptive type. When it comes to explaining the complexities of the stories she attempts to make sense of in FURIOUS HOURS, she is the first to tell the reader just how tangled the web is. The book, her debut, is delightfully twisty and gives time to both fact and rumor, treating any viable piece of information with the respect it deserves. This synthesis of evidence and speculation on the sensational trial of the man who executed a black Alabamian serial killer at the funeral of his last victim, and the notoriously reclusive white author from the same state who struggled and eventually gave up on reporting it, makes for a fascinating, if frustrating, read.

It’s enough of a page-turner to whet any true-crime fan’s appetite, but ultimately unsatisfying in that neither the killer nor the author’s story comes to any conclusive ending. It’s hardly fair to place the blame for this squarely on Cep, who’s given herself the daunting task of uniting these underreported, stranger-than-fiction narratives under one cover. If Harper Lee couldn’t make sense of the peculiar case of the Reverend Willie Maxwell when it happened nearly half a century ago, then who possibly can now?

"I really enjoyed the book and came away from it feeling like I learned something. In the days since I finished it, it has stayed with me, a testament to the resonance of the story Cep has told."

Thankfully, Cep has tried in FURIOUS HOURS. Despite raising more questions than it answers, this is truly an entertaining and educational book. Cep’s writing is visual and engaging, effortlessly transplanting her reader to any setting she evokes, whether it be a stifling southern courthouse in the midst of high summer or a freezing New York City shoebox apartment without heat or even a stove for hot water. Occasionally, she gets a little caught up in admiration for her own sentences, reaching for lyricism where a paring-down would make her point more effective, but this propensity for grandiloquence rarely distracts from the story at large.

The topic Cep has chosen is wholly engrossing, filled with a cast of larger-than-life characters: Harper Lee, her friend and rival Truman Capote, the murderous Rev. Maxwell, and his lawyer Tom Radney. Her reporting on these figures is thorough and informative, but due to the difficulty of pulling together such an ambitious project, the reader is left wanting more.

Perhaps structuring the book differently would have helped. FURIOUS HOURS is divided into three parts: “The Reverend,” “The Lawyer” and “The Writer,” with each giving a summary of its central subject’s life, motivations and how they tie into the plot. While this makes for absorbing, readable chapters, moving on to a new part is somewhat jarring, and I found myself spending a lot of time flipping back to earlier sections in attempts to recall important names and events that I had forgotten due to the book’s rigid, yet somehow disjointed, pacing. I would have preferred a narrative that moved chronologically between characters and events instead of separating them and jumping forwards and back again in time.

Regardless, I really enjoyed the book and came away from it feeling like I learned something. In the days since I finished it, it has stayed with me, a testament to the resonance of the story Cep has told. I look forward to reading what she produces next.

Reviewed by Alex Bowditch on May 17, 2019

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

  • Publication Date: May 7, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1101947861
  • ISBN-13: 9781101947869