Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep
This is hands down one of the best books I have read in a while. I checked it out from the library’s online audio book selections because it was available, without knowing anything about it. Was it non-fiction? Fiction? Did Harper Lee sue someone over book rights? Was she sued? I was intrigued in my ignorance.
As it turns out, you get two fascinating non-fiction stories for the price of one. Enter the Reverend Willie Maxwell. A smooth talking, well dressed man, who supervised a lumber crew by day and preached by night. And who had a thing for insurance.
As it turned out, over a period of two years, six people close to the Reverend died (five were family members), most in “car accidents.” Except they didn’t look like your typical accident; the vehicle in each situation was not damaged enough for investigators to believe the accident would have killed someone. Six people: two of Maxwell’s wives, his second wife’s first husband, his brother, his nephew and his adopted daughter. And oh, isn’t it interesting that there happened to be multiple insurance policies on each person, purchased by the Reverend, with Maxwell listed as the beneficiary?
The Maxwell case took an unexpected turn, and Harper Lee decided to take a trip to Alexander City, Alabama to research the case and write a book, her first since To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee had helped her close childhood friend Truman Capote research his best-selling novel, In Cold Blood, and Lee thought that this would be her ticket to her own true crime book.
In addition to the story of the Reverend Maxwell, Cep also chronicles the life of Harper Lee, from her childhood in Alabama, her process of writing and publishing To Kill a Mockingbird, and her struggles after the book immediately became one of the most influential books in history. Lee was not fond of the fame the book brought her, and began to live as a near recluse, turning down almost all requests for interviews and appearances.
Lee also struggled with profound grief; she had always had a complicated relationship with her mother who died young after struggling for years with mental illness. She was much more affected when her brother died suddenly shortly after at the age of 30. He had been her anchor and the sibling she was closest to. Her father, whom she deeply admired, died after a long, slow decline – even though she was older, his death was hard for her to cope with as well.
Lee’s life was often messy, with decades spent trying to create the next novel to follow Mockingbird. She developed close friendships with her agents and editors and outlived them all. She struggled with alcoholism. She had her ups and downs with Capote, eventually losing touch with him entirely. She had a love/hate relationship with New York; loving its bustle and culture and the anonymity it afforded her but feeling the pull of small town Alabama. Her one constant was her family.
The book is candid about Lee’s life, neither idolizing nor maligning her for the way that she lived after Mockingbird came out. Cep simply tries to tell it like it was. Cep’s writing fully develops the characters in a way that few authors do, and that is difficult when you are trying to accurately portray real people. I listened on audiobook and couldn’t wait for my drive so I could start back up where I left off. Brilliant.