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Furious Hours

Furious Hours

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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, And The Last Trial of Harper Lee

by Casey Cep

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About This Item

Signed by Author on Title Page
First Edition
Mylar-protected DJ


On May 15 2019, a reader said:

"Lee had committed herself to a book built from facts, but when it came to the story of the Reverend Maxwell, those were hard to come by, and harder still to verify ... History isn't what happened but what gets written down, and the various sources that make up the archival record generally overlooked the lives of poor black southerners … A writer trying to fix the life of Reverend Willie Maxwell on the page was mostly at the mercy of oral history, which could be misremembered or manipulated or simply withheld from an outsider."

Furious Hours is a non-fiction book by American author, Casey Cep. In 1977, author Harper Lee attended, virtually incognito, the murder trial of Robert Louis Burns in Alexander City, Alabama. It was a fascinating case, and Lee, already known for To Kill A Mockingbird, and for her part in Truman Capote's true-crime classic, In Cold Blood, intended to write a book about it. She never did. Cep divides her account of this into three sections.

The Reverend was Reverend Willie Maxwell, and this section summarises his life and details the known facts about the six deaths in which he is thought to have a hand. Cep paints the backdrop for these deaths by giving the reader brief potted histories of: the area in Alabama where it all took place; life insurance policies and practices; the trade of pulpwooding; the development of forensic sciences in Alabama; and voodoo.

Maxwell's scheme with life insurance policies was well known from his first wife's death, so by the time the next family member, his older brother, John died: "According to his death certificate, John Columbus dies of a heart attack, caused by the overconsumption of alcohol; according to nearly the whole of Nixburg, John Columbus died of being a Maxwell."

The Attorney was Tom Radney, former politician, but by 1977, a successful full-time lawyer in Alexander City: "Big Tom was a walking Rolodex of bias and conflict; he knew who had been fired from what, where someone had worked before she got her current job, why one person would pardon an aggravated assault and another would want the death penalty for petty theft. He was the lawyerly version of the 'old woman' in W. J. Cash's Mind of the South, the one, 'with the memory like a Homeric bard's, capable of moving easily through a mass of names and relationships so intricate that the quantum theory is mere child's play in comparison.'"

He had represented Willie Maxwell in court for the trial for his first wife's murder as well as the myriad of contested insurance claims, but now he was representing the man who shot Maxwell in front of three hundred witnesses. "Five of the several dozen prospective jurors had to be dismissed right away, because, in addition to being summoned, they'd been subpoenaed: four were character witnesses for the defendant, and one was an eyewitness to the shooting. Those dismissals were telling. As with any small-town trial, the lawyers had to weigh not whether people knew one another but how well, in what way, and what degree of sympathy or antipathy."

The Writer was, of course, (Nelle) Harper Lee, and Cep offers a brief life history, concentrating on Lee's contribution to Capote's research for In True Blood, and then her writer's block, which her close friends and family hoped would be dispelled by her interest in the Maxwell Case. Lee spent almost a year in Alex City researching the non-fiction book she planned to write.

But apart from worrying that she might be sued, she faced other challenges: a "shortage of [verifiable] facts, the lack of an ideal protagonist, her unfamiliarity with the lives of African Americans, a certain uncomfortable muddiness concerning black criminality in a criminally racist society, and a related discomfort with her own deep delight in the self-serving mythologies of the southern gentry." This led, in later years, to Lee toying with turning it into fiction. The book, eagerly awaited by so many, never eventuated.

Cep's meticulous research is apparent on every page, and also evidenced by the comprehensive notes for each chapter and the extensive bibliography. A handy map complements the text. Cep's real talent, though, is presenting this wealth of information in an eminently readable form that will keep the reader enthralled despite knowing the ultimate outcome. Utterly captivating.

This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Penguin Random House

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Red Umbrella Books US (US)
Bookseller's Inventory #
Furious Hours
Casey Cep
Book Condition
New New
Jacket Condition
Quantity Available
First Edition
Alfred A. Knopf
Place of Publication
New York
Date Published
Bookseller catalogs
Signed Adult Fiction & Nonfiction;

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Nashua, New Hampshire
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