November 2023 Open Book Group – Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Welcome to Carmel and thank you to Kevin for moderating Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep.

Cep was educated at Harvard and Oxford, before becoming an investigative reporter at the New Yorker. Furious Hours is her debut true crime novel published in 2019. It met with critical success winning The Crime Riders Association Gold Dagger for non-fiction crime in English.

 Furious Hours is the story, of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead 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.

As Alabama is consumed by these gripping events, it’s not long until news of the case reaches Alabama’s – and America’s – most famous writer. Intrigued by the story, Harper Lee makes a journey back to her home state to witness the Reverend’s killer face trial. Harper had the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research. Lee spent a year in town reporting on the Maxwell case and many more years trying to finish the book she called The Reverend.

 Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.

Furious Hours is the story Harper Lee wanted to write. This is the story of why she couldn’t.

13 OBGers gathered to discuss Furious Hours. Cep’s journalism background shone through in the detail of her research into Maxwell’s alleged murders. Cep felt that to understand the present you must understand the past. She delved deep into subjects from the geographical setting of the murders to the history of life insurance. While appreciating her research for many it was too dense. Others conceded that while they found it a hard job to get through, with hindsight, they were grateful they had persevered.

One member noted Cep had written three books in one. The alleged murders of Maxwell, the court case of his alleged killer and Harper Lee’s unsuccessful attempt to write a book about them. They felt it may have been more successful to write three smaller books. The stories of the murders were interesting as most readers had not come across them before. However, they thought. Cep was retracing old ground about Harper Lee’s life. Cep did not have any original insights. Some wondered the point of writing the second half of the novel. The more cynical of the group thought putting Lees’ name in the title was to ensure it would be a bestseller.

Others were not so critical. They were interested to read why Harper Lee had suffered trying to write a second novel. As To Kill a Mockingbird had become a seminal American novel her perfectionism and alcoholism proved barriers to realising her second novel. Her Increasingly toxic relationship with Truman Capote also played a part.

A lot of our discussion centred around the writing of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Harper Lee had accompanied Capote when they went to Alabama to investigate the murders of the Clutter family. Harper Lee had undertaken and recorded most of the research. When the book was published, to great acclaim, Lee’s received little acknowledgement. There is a conspiracy theory/urban myth that Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. If that was the case, we wondered if that explained why she could not write a “second” novel. We thought, given Capote‘s need for fame it seemed unbelievable he would not have claimed To Kill a Mockingbird as his work.

We observed that Maxwell’s alleged crimes had not been seriously investigated. Black violence against black victims was not taken seriously. The situation would have been different if Maxwell had been white, and his various wives disappeared suspiciously.

We noted that Harper Lee wrote that many of the residents of Alabama were not racist, despite supporting segregation. It reminded us of the recent Voice referendum with the oft-heard comment “I’m not a racist, but…. ”

In 2015, Lee published a second novel Go Set a Watchman. We wondered why. Was it to add to the insurance/inheritance to her family as it was guaranteed to be a best seller? One member, who had read it, commented that it was a mediocre novel and not the work of literary genius.

The research to produce Furious Hours matches the intensity of Harper Lee’s. Casey Cep has synthesised it into the true crime novel Lee did not manage to produce. For that, Cep deserves our respect.

An interesting podcast with more details about the murders.

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