No one will claim that Casey Cep doesn’t do her research.
In her first book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, Cep chronicles in microscopic detail the fascinating story of a rural Alabama preacher accused of murdering several of his family and the ensuing attempt to document all of the mystery by famed and reclusive author Harper Lee.
Furious Hours begins with the Reverend Willie Maxwell’s story before shifting into his demise and then Harper Lee’s years-long research into the southeastern Alabama enigma involving a man who was both rumored to use voodoo as well as gather massive amounts of insurance money from familial loss.
The book impresses by uncovering every possible angle, from the reverend, his family, and especially his lawyer, who becomes a central figure in both the reverend’s life and death. The salacious nature of Reverend Willie Maxwell’s life immediately makes the narrative a page-tuner all by itself; Cep’s writing ensures depth. Her marvelous use of words demonstrate a writer in control of her craft: Harper Lee doesn’t desire being alone, she “valorizes solitude”; the funeral services aren’t a way of worship for a deceased member of the family but are a “liturgy.” At times, the words hint of more than what’s on the page.
The work is one that undoubtedly took a staggering amount of manhours of meticulous research, from Cep laying out the history of life insurance to her clearing the fog of Truman Capote’s trips to Kansas with Harper Lee’s help. Furious Hours is also a piece of nonfiction that’s a bit too bogged down in the singularity of facts. (Cep spends several unnecessary pages of the text discussing the construction of Lake Martin in Alabama.)
Cep also constructs a work that could easily be two separate books: the story of the reverend and the unpublished work of Harper Lee. The separation of these reports rarely weave into one another. That makes sense as Lee and the Reverend Maxwell were divided by years. It stands to reason, though, that the sections could use blending.
Still, Furious Hours is tremendous. The clarity of Harper Lee’s life in the back half alone makes the book worth the time, not to mention the intriguing nature of the multiple crimes therein.
Everything that Cep knows about those southeastern Alabama murders, trials, and writing is on the table. That’s a comfort in spite of no other books from Lee herself.