It’s the topic of Harper Lee that will draw most readers to this non-fiction book but it’s Casey Cep’s strong and even narration and detailed research, as well as the fascinating story of murder, that will keep them reading.
I had heard about Furious Hours but it was Fiction Fan’s review that convinced me I should read it. (You can read her review here.) Like many, many people, I read To Kill a Mockingbird long ago in high school. I’m not sure that I’ve ever re-read it since but I did pay attention when Harper Lee was again in the news in recent years with her publication of Go Set a Watchman, her first publication since, well, her only novel. While Furious Hours sheds light on what Go Set a Watchman is and where it came from, its focus is another book, the one that Lee never wrote.
As many know, Lee was close friends with Truman Capote and was a great aid to him in his writing of the true crime novel In Cold Blood. (Another one I read in high school. Just how much Lee aided him in his research, I didn’t know, nor was I aware of how In Cold Blood shaped the genre of true crime that we have today.) Lee hoped to write her own true crime story and when she learned of the case of Reverend Willie Maxwell and his murder, it seemed like the perfect fit. Voodoo, insurance fraud, plus a man who committed a murder in front of hundreds of witnesses but was home free in his own living room when Lee interviewed him. All taking place in Lee’s home state of Alabama.
Cep divides the story into three parts – The Reverend, The Lawyer, The Author – and she holds the reader’s attention through all three sections. She delves deep into Alabama history, into politics, into the beginnings of life insurance and into the lives of these three characters. The Reverend who both committed murders (allegedly) and was murdered by vigilante justice. The lawyer who defended both Rev. Maxwell and the man who killed him. And Harper Lee who learned the story inside out but never wrote the book.
Cep does an excellent job at giving the right amount of background information. She never dumbs things down but she doesn’t assume her reader necessarily knows all the background. (And as a non-American I appreciate this because there is a lot of American history and politics here that I was only vaguely familiar with.) The book is factual but reads easily and I found myself pushing to read on. Most tellingly, it loses no momentum between the sections, even as we switch focus. It’s a complicated and fascinating story and it’s told very well.