BOOK REVIEW: Furious Hours: Casey Cep

"Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee" is a wonderfully strange book.

Casey Cep tells the 1970s story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher connected to several bizarre deaths to collect insurance money in Alabama. The law can't seem to gather enough evidence to convict or charge him for a half dozen deaths which include two of his wives, his second wife's first husband and relatives.

With the preacher remaining free and his material fortunes increasing with every death, many of his neighbors believe he practices voodoo. But really Maxwell owes his ability to collect from multiple insurance policies on each dead person and his freedom to Tom Radney, the savvy, white attorney who represents the preacher.

But when the preacher's step-daughter dies in a questionable manner, one relative, Robert Burns, has enough and decides the community will no longer live in terror of Maxwell. Burns shoots Maxwell dead during the girl's funeral in front of hundreds of witnesses. And Radney, who once defended Maxwell so avidly, successfully defends Burns during a dramatic murder trial.

The case draws the attention of Harper Lee, celebrated author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," a writer who has written nothing for publication since the release of her famous and beloved novel several years earlier. She hopes to write a true-crime book based on the Maxwell case.

She employs the same research methods and journalistic skills she used to assist lifelong friend and fellow author Truman Capote during his investigation for the true-crime classic, "In Cold Blood."

Despite her exhaustive research and deep dive into interviews in the Maxwell case, Lee never wrote the book. She never wrote another book. "Go Set a Watchman" was published in 2015, a year before her death, but she wrote it decades earlier, prior to "Mockingbird."

This review gives away nothing that is not revealed in the summary inside the book jacket.

"Furious Hours" is about the details of the story. It's about the people involved and the possibilities within the story. It's about the mystery surrounding the deaths connected to the preacher and the mystery of Lee not finishing the book about Maxwell.

Cep gives some reasons but anyone looking for definitive answers about either mystery may come away frustrated. Though it's possible the uncertainties behind the Maxwell-related deaths provide a partial answer for why Lee could not finish her book ... but only a partial possibility.

Cep divides her book into three sections: "The Reverend" centering on Maxwell; "The Lawyer" centering on Radney; and "The Writer" focusing on Lee.

Harper Lee doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book, but when she does, Cep paints a gripping portrait of the writer and her works.

"The Writer" section is worth the wait. Besides, Cep fills the preceding pages with great profiles on both Maxwell and Radney as well as interesting looks at the creation of a man-made lake in Alabama, voodoo, the history of insurance, etc.

"Furious Hours" is a fantastic debut book — one that will have readers hiding away to finish it cover to cover or furiously plotting to return to its pages.

Harper Lee apparently couldn't figure out what to do with the Maxwell case, but Casey Cep solves the riddle of how to tell the story of the Maxwell case and Harper Lee.

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