Book Review: 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

Rating: 5 out of 5.

While looking for true crimes for my library job, Furious Hours popped up on every list I found. The New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Dallas Morning News and The Economist named it one of the best books of 2019 and President Barack Obama selected it as one of his favorite books of the same year.

During the 1970s in Nixburg, Alabama, five relatives of the Reverend Willie Maxwell died under suspicious circumstances, after which Maxwell cashed in on multiple life insurance policies. Although he was never charged with their murders, the insurance companies contested the claims. A fast-talking lawyer/politician named Tom Radney represented Maxwell and they won a majority of the disputes. Family members and citizens in Nixburg were terrified Maxwell had policies on them too. And rumors of voodoo abounded. At the funeral of the fifth family member, an outraged Robert Burns shot and killed Maxwell. Radney stepped in as his lawyer and the jury found Burns not guilty.

Cep divides this fascinating book into three parts. The first section provides an historical background of Nixburg, Alabama and the Maxwell family, their early days as sharecroppers, of Willie Maxwell’s service in the army and his first marriage. She details the family members’ deaths and Maxwell’s relationship with Tom Radney.

In the second part, Cep describes Tom Radney’s political career as a progressive Democrat in Alabama amid a climate of tense racial politics. While attending the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Radney made a series of progressive comments and angered folks in Alabama. For months, he and his family were barraged by death threats. Radney eventually withdrew from seeking election and hung up a shingle in Alexander City, though he continued to support civil rights, integration and Democratic politics.

Part three of Furious Hours brings Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, into the story. After the book’s enormous success, Lee’s writing career had stalled. In 1965, Truman Capote asked his childhood friend to help him research In Cold Blood. This experience reignited Lee’s interest in law and crime. When Lee heard about the Maxwell murders, she moved to Alexander City, attended the trial, conducted interviews, and befriended Tom Radney. She then returned to New York to start a book that she never finished. Cep looks at what happened.

Cep writes early on that there are two mysteries in her story. The first is “what would become of the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

I enjoyed reading how Cep connected Maxwell, Radney and Lee, about Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote and her stalled writing career. I recommend Furious Hours to readers who enjoy true crime and biographies.

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