WHAT: FURIOUS HOURS:
Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
WHEN: Published by Knopf May 8, 2019
WHERE: The story is set in Alabama.
WHY: “A grimly fascinating true-crime story
that does Harper Lee justice.
“Harper Lee’s crucial work with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood has been much scrutinized as part of the ongoing mystery regarding her struggle to write after the runaway success of To Kill a Mockingbird. But Cep, in her first book, is the first to reveal in full Lee’s efforts to write her own true-crime chronicle, one that, unlike Capote’s, would stick to the facts.
“With a zeal for research and a gift for linguistic precision, Cep delves into Alabama’s history, tells the striking stories of all involved in this macabre saga, and she chronicles Lee’s extensive investigation…A fresh and compelling portrait of an essential American writer.” —Donna Seaman, in a starred review for BOOKLIST
“This is essential reading for anyone interested
in Harper Lee and American literary history.
“Part one follows the career of Alabama preacher Willie Maxwell as five family members over several years die under mysterious circumstances, all with large life insurance policies held by the reverend, rumored also to be a voodoo priest. On June 18, 1977, Maxwell was shot dead in front of 300 people at his stepdaughter’s funeral in Alexander City, Ala.
“Part two focuses on his killer’s trial later that year, which Harper Lee attended. Along the way, Cep relates the history of courthouses, voodoo, Alabama politics, and everything one needs to know about the insanity defense. Part three charts the To Kill a Mockingbird author’s efforts to write about the trial, but in Alexander City she finds only myths, lies, and her own insecurities.
“By many accounts, Lee wrote a book and may have rewritten it as fiction, though no manuscript has ever been found. As to what happened to the years of work Lee did on the story, Cep notes, ‘Lee…was so elusive that even her mysteries have mysteries: not only what she wrote, but how; not only when she stopped, but why.’”
—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, a starred review
“A well-tempered blend of true crime and literary lore.
“In this effortlessly immersive narrative, Cep engagingly traces how Lee found the case and began — and ultimately abandoned — a project she called The Reverend. She breathes not only life, but style into her exhaustive, impressively research narrative. Short histories of fraud, Southern politics, and urban development take shape alongside a condensed biography of Lee. By fully detailing the crimes before Lee even appears, Cep allows readers to see the case through Lee’s eyes and recognize its nascent literary potential. Above all, this is a book about inspiration and how a passion for the mysteries of humanity can cause an undeniable creative spark.”
FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK:
Nobody recognized her. Harper Lee was well known, but not by sight, and if she hadn’t introduced herself, it’s unlikely that anyone in the courtroom would have figured out who she was. Hundreds of people were crowded into the gallery, filling the wooden benches that squeaked whenever someone moved or leaning against the back wall if they hadn’t arrived in time for a seat. Late September wasn’t late enough for the Alabama heat to have died down, and the air-conditioning in the courthouse wasn’t working, so the women waved fans while the men’s suits grew damp under their arms and around their collars. The spectators whispered from time to time, and every so often they laughed — an uneasy laughter that evaporated whenever the judge quieted them.
The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. Three months before, at the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl, the man with his legs crossed patiently beside the defense table had pulled a pistol from the inside pocket of his jacket and shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell three times in the head. Three hundred people had seen him do it. Many of them were now at his trial, not to learn why he had killed the Reverend — everyone in three counties knew that, and some were surprised no one had done it sooner—but to understand the disturbing series of deaths that had come before the one they’d witnessed.