Harper Lee is famous for her beloved classic To Kill A Mockingbird-–just last year it won The Great American Read and was so universally popular that it always led the public’s voting for favorite book by a wide margin for the entire duration of the vote.
However, Lee is perhaps just as famous for the fact that To Kill A Mockingbird is her only book. Sure, publishers released her Go Set a Watchman a few years ago, but in truth, that was just the very early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird and not a new book.
That’s not to say that Lee never tried to write another book, however.
According to Casey Cep’s debut Furious Hours, Lee worked for years on a true crime manuscript about a bizarre case of murder and insurance fraud in 1960s/1970s Alabama. . . .
Casey Cep’s Furious Hours has ended up being my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. She tells 3 very different stories here, and all of them are equally gripping and integrated in such a way that the manuscript is still coherent. That’s quite a feat because one of the reasons Harper Lee abandoned the project of writing about this case is she was having trouble wrestling the convoluted story into a workable structure.
The first part of the book focuses on the strange crime that Harper Lee proposed to write about–the story of Willie Maxwell, an Alabama preacher reputed to dabble in voodoo and accused of murdering several relatives for insurance money over a span of several years.
Maxwell met his end at the funeral of one of his victims, shot by another grieving relative. The same attorney who defended Maxwell then defended the accused. This transitions the story away from Maxwell and to the book’s second part–about said attorney, Tom Radney, who was also an influential political figure in Civil Rights-era Alabama.
From there, the book transitions to its third and final part, a biography of Harper Lee and a look at her attempt to follow up To Kill A Mockingbird. I was aware of quite a bit of Lee’s life, including her influential behind-the-scenes research work on In Cold Blood, written by her childhood friend Truman Capote. However, I still learned a lot about Lee’s life (including her work on In Cold Blood) in Furious Hours.
Whether she’s writing about Willie Maxwell’s crime spree, Tom Radney’s work as a politician and attorney, or Harper Lee’s life and work, Cep is fair-minded, her prose is well-written, and her research is extensive. I especially appreciated that she wrote about both Radney and Lee sympathetically but without it turning into hagiography.
If you like history, true crime, biography, or any combination thereof, I highly recommend this book. I’m already looking forward to seeing what Cep herself writes about next.
*Ebook and audiobook also available on Libby.
What’s your favorite book you’ve read this year? Have you read Furious Hours? What’s your favorite book about true crime? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog to find more information on this item or to place a hold.