Casey Cep revisits the true crime story that tantalized and eluded Harper Lee — and finds a window into the life of a writer, and the life of a community grappling with tragedy.
Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members, but with the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative assassinated him at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted—thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the reverend himself. Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who spent a year in town reporting on the Maxwell case and many more trying to finish the book she called The Reverend.
Cep brings this remarkable story to life, from the horrifying murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South, while offering a deeply moving portrait of one of our most revered writers.
|Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
|5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Furious Hours:
Nobody recognized her. Harper Lee was well known, but not by sight, and if she hadn’t introduced herself, it’s unlikely that anyone in the courtroom would have figured out who she was. Hundreds of people were crowded into the gallery, filling the wooden benches that squeaked whenever someone moved or leaning against the back wall if they hadn’t arrived in time for a seat. Late September wasn’t late enough for the Alabama heat to have died down, and the air-conditioning in the courthouse wasn’t working, so the women waved fans while the men’s suits grew damp under their arms and around their collars. The spectators whispered from time to time, and every so often they laughed—an uneasy laughter that evaporated whenever the judge quieted them.
The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. Three months before, at the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl, the man with his legs crossed patiently beside the defense table had pulled a pistol from the inside pocket of his jacket and shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell three times in the head. Three hundred people had seen him do it. Many of them were now at his trial, not to learn why he had killed the Reverend—everyone in three counties knew that, and some were surprised no one had done it sooner—but to understand the disturbing series of deaths that had come before the one they’d witnessed.
One by one, over a period of seven years, six people close to the Reverend had died under circumstances that nearly everyone agreed were suspicious and some deemed supernatural. Through all of the resulting investigations, the Reverend was represented by a lawyer named Tom Radney, whose presence in the courtroom that day wouldn’t have been remarkable had he not been there to defend the man who killed his former client. A Kennedy liberal in the Wallace South, Radney was used to making headlines, and this time he would make them far beyond the local Alexander City Outlook. Reporters from the Associated Press and other wire services, along with national magazines and newspapers including Newsweek and The New York Times, had flocked to Alexander City to cover what was already being called the tale of the murderous voodoo preacher and the vigilante who shot him.
One of the reporters, though, wasn’t constrained by a daily deadline. Harper Lee lived in Manhattan but still spent some of each year in Monroeville, the town where she was born and raised, only 150 miles away from Alex City. Seventeen years had passed since she’d published To Kill a Mockingbird and twelve since she’d finished helping her friend Truman Capote report the crime story in Kansas that became In Cold Blood. Now, finally, she was ready to try again. One of the state’s best trial lawyers was arguing one of the state’s strangest cases, and the state’s most famous author was there to write about it. She would spend a year in town investigating the case, and many more turning it into prose. The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would become of the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The Reverend
1 Divide the Waters from the Waters 7
2 Minister of the Gospel 16
3 Death Benefits 29
4 Seventh Son of a Seventh Son 41
5 Just Plain Scared 50
6 No Exception to the Rule 62
Part 2 The Lawyer
7 Who's in the Stew? 79
8 Roses Are Red 88
9 The Fight for Good 96
10 The Maxwell House 101
11 Peace and Goodwill 110
12 Tom v. Tom 120
13 The Man from Eclectic 130
14 What Holmes Was Talking About 142
Part 3 The Writer
15 Disappearing Act 149
16 Some Kind of Soul 153
17 The Gift 165
18 Deep Calling to Deep 180
19 Death and Taxes 192
20 Rumor, Fantasy, Dreams, Conjecture, and Outright Lies 209
21 Coming Back Until Doomsday 222
22 Horseshoe Bend 238
23 The Long Good-Bye 256
Reading Group Guide
1. How did the book change the way you think about Harper Lee and her literary legacy? What were you most surprised to learn?
2. One of the most disturbing aspects of Reverend Maxwell’s murder spree was the connection between him and his victims. How does Cep bring to life the horror of crimes committed within a family and a small Southern community?
3. Discuss how race played into the case of the Reverend Willie Maxwell.
4. What were your first impressions of Tom Radney? How did your perception of him change as you read the book?
5. What do you think about the morality of Robert Burns’s decision to murder the Reverend Willie Maxwell?
6. Did you know anything about the Maxwell murders before reading the book? Why do you think it took so long for them to get this kind of public attention?
7. What does Cep’s portrait convey about Truman Capote? Which traits stand out?
8. How did Harper Lee and Truman Capote’s relationship play into the larger story? How do you think Lee’s experience with In Cold Blood shaped her approach to writing her own true crime tale?
9. Why do you think the Maxwell case captivated Lee’s attention enough to dedicate years of her life to writing it? Do you think she finished it? If not, what do you think stopped her? What do you think happened to whatever existed of the manuscript?
10. Furious Hours combines the horror and mystery of a true crime tale with the in-depth history and detail of a biography. How does Cep integrate the two different pieces of the book?
11. How does Furious Hours distinguish itself from other nonfiction books you have read?
12. How does the reading experience and group discussion differ with a nonfiction book like Furious Hours compared to novels?