Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
|Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep|
|Category: True Crime|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: It's the true story of an Alabama serial killer and the trial which obsessed Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird. It's also a gripping story of shocking murders and insurance fraud. Splendid stuff.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336/11h16m||Date: May 2019|
|Publisher: William Heinemann|
|External links: Author's website|
Sometimes you begin reading a book and before you've got to the bottom of the first page you know that it's going to be brilliant. You sense the author's effortless grasp of her subject matter and you already know that her use of words is almost surgical in its precision. The hands holding you are safe, which considering that this is a book about two subjects where facts are in short supply, is somewhat surprising. Our first subject is the Reverend Willie Maxwell. Over seven years, six people close to the Reverend had died, with Maxwell benefiting substantially from insurance policies which he'd taken out on their lives.
At the funeral of his final victim he was shot three times in the head, in front of three hundred witnesses, with the majority of people wondering not why it had been done, but why it had not been done sooner. The man who had shot Maxwell was Robert Burns and he would be defended by Big Tom Radney - who had done rather well financially from defending Willie Maxwell and from pressing the insurance companies who were reluctant to pay out on the insurance policies which Maxwell had taken out (sometimes multiple times) on the lives of his relatives. Radney believed that every man deserved a lawyer and he had no worries about appearing to switch sides.
In the gallery, watching the trial, was Nelle Harper Lee, better known as the author of To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee lived in Manhattan, but spent time each year in Monroeville, Alabama - the state of her birth. Lee was notoriously reclusive, but it seemed that after helping her great friend Truman Capote with the research for his best selling In Cold Blood Lee thought that she might have found her own project - the life of Willie Maxwell.
Casey Cep is meticulous: if a subject is introduced you're going to learn enough about it to enable you to understand the situation. She's fascinating on the growth of insurance companies and enlightening on voodoo: it was thought that the Reverend Willie Maxwell dabbled in the dark arts and that this was responsible for the deaths of some of his relatives. It would be simplistic to dismiss this idea as irrational, but Cep deals with the subject sensitively and it's easy to understand why some of Maxwell's 'parishioners' might have believed this to be the truth of the matter.
Lee would never write her book, although she persisted with it for decades, but ultimately there was a gaping hole where the facts should have been. Part of this was down to a lack of official interest in domestic violence and black-on-black crime. She never thought that what she was writing would satisfy her readers and herself.
Cep puts Go Set a Watchman in context - confirming my long-held belief that it was a book which should never have been published. What I wasn't aware of was Harper Lee's complicated view on civil rights, or the extent to which To Kill A Mockingbird came about through the editorial intervention of Tay Hohoff.
It's a superb book: I'd planned to read it over five days, but finished it on the third and only took so long because I kept rereading sections. It's enlightening on the origins of the True Crime genre and it's the sort of book where the reader constantly annoys other people by insisting on telling them gems which they've just seen. It was a real pleasure to read and I'd like to thank the publishers for making a copy available to The Bookbag.
Further reading: If you like Furious Hours, you'll love Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman. If you'd like to try something by Truman Capote we can recommend Breakfast at Tiffany's. We're asssuming that you'll have read To Kill A Mockingbird, but if you haven't, you really should.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep at Amazon.com.
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