Harper Lee fascinates, this much is clear. She’d published just a single novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, for much of her lifetime, until her second and final book, Go Set a Watchman, was belatedly discovered and released to critical derision — and huge commercial success. Lee died shortly thereafter, with her reputation as an American literary icon well intact. Just last year, Mockingbird was named the country’s favorite novel ever by a public vote.
Her limited bibliography, her peculiar second act, her friendships and rivalries in the literary world — Lee’s mystique is core to her enduring appeal. And so it’s no wonder that a book delving into a promising but unfinished project of hers has already emerged as a watercooler best-seller. Casey Cep’s Furious Hours fills in the gap of Lee’s post-Mockingbird career with insatiable curiosity and impressive research. It reveals not just her intellectual interests, but within them, her personal relationships and motivations. Cep seeks to immerse us in Lee’s obsessions, her inner life. This profoundly ambitious goal, approached innovatively and at times ingeniously, isn’t quite reached, but the effort is admirable.
Furious Hours opens in a courtroom, mid-1970s, with Lee in attendance for a murder trial. An attorney named Tom Radney is defending the alleged killer of Willie Maxwell, himself an alleged killer — and also, incidentally, a former client of Radney’s. Strange times, in other words. And what was Lee doing in that courtroom? Cep notes that Lee was there researching, absorbing, for her next book, but we don’t get much beyond that. Indeed, over her first 100-plus pages, Cep revisits Maxwell’s life and crimes, Radney’s relationship with Maxwell and his killer, and the broader sociopolitical realities surrounding them. Lee, in Cep’s estimation, can wait.
Maxwell was born to a sharecropper and grew up in rural Alabama at a time of heightened racial tensions and inequalities; upon returning from World War II, in which he served, he briefly left his hometown, only to return and carve out several niches for himself as an adult. One such niche was preacher. (“He always considered himself ‘minister of the gospel,’” Cep writes.) Cep’s second chapter is particularly chilling, detailing the initial shock to follow Maxwell’s first murder — of his then-wife — in 1970, and how he evaded arrest. From there, four more of his family members were found dead within seven years. Maxwell became feared as a voodoo priest, living up to the “minister of the gospel” title he’d fancied for himself — a man with power over matters of both life and death. But as Cep lays out, he was mostly just a fraud chasing death benefits.
Cep thrives in specifics. Maxwell’s rise and fall is intriguing enough, but the author vividly embraces his story’s true-crime aesthetic, drowning it in sticky Southern atmosphere, enthusiastically outlining the most granular of the area’s policy developments, contextualizing every stage of Maxwell’s bizarre, menacing life. This does not make a whole book, however; Lee hovers over the first section of Furious Hours as an unmentioned, invisible figure, before gradually slotting herself into the world.
Cep takes readers on that journey from a crisp, detached, eloquent distance. The problem, as other critics have discussed, is that rather than feeling holistic, Furious Hours introduces three compelling but unfinished strands of a larger narrative. The book is subtitled, with exceeding accuracy, “Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.” Each subject therein occupies its own standalone space in the tome, like juicy and extensive magazine articles that hint at entire books. Cep likely wouldn’t disagree with this assessment, for incompletion is Furious Hours’ signature concern. Yet the author doesn’t quite meditate on the theme enough to render the structure fully satisfying.
Lee is only reintroduced in the book’s final act, after the slimmest of its three parts. Cep’s passion for the literary icon is clear, and her research is exhaustive; she manages to sketch out a mini-biography, even, with surprising breadth and grace. In Furious Hours, the simmering tension that Cep imbues the story that fueled Lee’s own preoccupations with certainly lends the climax an added emotional impact. Cep seductively keys the reader in to Lee’s processes by reflecting on the holes, inconsistencies, and challenges of reporting out Maxwell’s killings and death. In that sense, there’s a stirring poetry to Furious Hours that eludes most contemporary nonfiction. Cep’s struggles are Lee’s struggles. Her grappling with senseless, brutal crimes mirrors Lee’s struggles with the embellished, stylized work of her friend Truman Capote in his groundbreaking In Cold Blood.
Rumored to have written a manuscript (though it’s never been uncovered), Lee, eventually, would put down the book she planned to call The Reverend — the book that Cep has, in her way, paralleled in research and intrigue and fragmentation with Furious Hours — for reasons ranging from celebrity to deception to the case’s unsolved mysteries. (Says Cep: “To begin with, it was difficult to reconstruct the life of a sharecropper’s son.”) “Lee did want accuracy,” Cep writes, “but when she tried to start writing, she found that facts were in short supply.” Furious Hours uniquely, frustratingly confronts a long-incomplete story by telling an incomplete story of its own. B