Harper Lee is one of those rare writers who managed to cement herself in literary canon with a single novel and a smattering of short stories. A recluse even J.D. Salinger could be proud of, she kept to herself, privately enjoying her earnings from To Kill A Mockingbird, poking her head out just long enough to publish Go Set a Watchman in 2015 before dying a year later.
But the truth of those years is far more complex and frustrating, as Casey Cep details in Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.
If the subtitle seems lengthy, it’s only because it’s desperately trying to knit two disparate pieces of history together. Harper Lee hardly comes into the story until halfway through the book, which is not an exaggeration. There are two distinct halves of Furious Hours, How well they combine into a contiguous whole is a judgement best made after reading.
The first character is the endlessly colorful Rev. Willie Maxwell. But don’t let the title lead you astray—when he wasn’t working on a pulpwooding crew or preaching, Maxwell was buying up dozens of life insurance policies on his wives and family members and then killing them. Sorry, allegedly killing them; Maxwell had a day in court, but was not convicted when the star witness changed her testimony. It’s worth noting that this star witness later married Maxwell and then was killed in almost identical circumstances to his first wife, and Maxwell collected thousands of dollars of life insurance money from the tragedy. After six family members died, all with hefty, new life insurance policies naming Maxwell as the sole beneficiary, the town kept their distance—except for his late second wife’s brother, who shot him at the funeral for Maxwell’s stepdaughter.
From Maxwell’s story, the book shifts to following the Tom Radney, attorney defending, first, Maxwell, and then the man who shot him. (The shooter, Robert Burns, was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and spent just a few weeks in a mental hospital before being found sane and released.) And we read about Radney’s career and political aspirations before we get to Burns’ trial, which we reach the end of before going back and revisiting Harper Lee’s childhood, early career, success with Mockingbird, and finally the reason for her presence in Burns’ trial and broader interest in the case.
Which was, spoiler, that it interested her. It interested her that Maxwell could have killed so many people without criminal repercussions (he was sued civilly by insurance companies and insurance companies working in that area banned him from taking out any more policies), and that he enjoyed popularity in the community for so long. It interested her that he was a seemingly normal man who had found a loophole in the normal way of things, and passing through that loophole required only the blood of the next person within reach. It interested her and she cut her teeth as a writer in the newsroom and she had just helped her BFF Truman Capote do In Cold Blood so she packed up her typewriter and left New York to return to Alabama. There’s very little mystery and it feels like a bit of a letdown to read through more than half of the book with the promise of finding out why Harper Lee would deign to come to the trial when the answer is so simple.
Luckily, there’s enough else going on in the book that having what might be called a misstep is soon forgotten.
Harper Lee played pretend with Truman Capote until he left for New York to try his hand at being a writer and she followed. His comparatively rapid success rankled her, especially when her writing was continuously rejected. When she reached the end of her rope, she met her eventual editors, who guided her into revising and reworking her ideas into what became To Kill A Mockingbird. She was happy. A little money started to trickle in. All was well. But Mockingbird‘s success complicated things. She only wanted to be a writer, not a national icon, and the pressure made it hard to write again.
As Cep tells it, Lee exploring Maxwell’s case represented an effort to return to the kind of writing she felt mattered. Maybe it would be true crime, like In Cold Blood—by all accounts, it’s unlikely Capote could have gotten the interviews and insight he did into the true crime case without Lee’s personability and down-home touch. Or maybe it would be a fictionalized account. But we don’t know because after years of work on the book she began referring to as The Reverend, Harper Lee quietly put it away and didn’t speak much of it again. And that was that.
There’s a kind of tragedy in Lee’s story, in her wanting a lofty goal only to find she shot far beyond her wildest imagination to a place she didn’t care for at all. Her notoriety opened doors for her but it also let others gawk at what the famous lady author was doing inside. And for an intensely shy and private person, that part of her success must have been hellish.
Her story does not feel like it fits in with Maxwell’s, or even alongside it. It’s a jagged transition that I don’t think any writer could smooth over prettily. But that glaring seam between the sections of Furious Hours is almost a metaphor for Lee’s frustrations in putting the story together. It wouldn’t behave for her; it wouldn’t sit on the page like it was supposed to. Lee could never get it right, and perhaps that continues here in the story about Lee’s failure to tell that story.
The place where Lee’s story and Maxwell’s collide isn’t pretty. It doesn’t create a new whole greater than the sum of its parts. But both of the individual stories are fascinating and the ugliness and mystery that remain between them are thought-provoking.