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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 7, 2019
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One of The Washington Post's Most Notable Reads of 2019
“She explains as well as it is likely ever to be explained why Lee went silent after To Kill a Mockingbird. (The clue’s in Cep’s title.) And it’s here, in her descriptions of another writer’s failure to write, that her book makes a magical little leap, and it goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.” —Michael Lewis, The New York Times Book Review
"A compelling hybrid of a novel, at once a true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and miniature biography of Harper Lee. If To Kill a Mockingbird was one of your favorite books growing up, you should add Furious Hours to your reading list today.” —Southern Living
"Cep delivers edge-of-your-seat courtroom drama while brilliantly reinventing Southern Gothic…The result is an enthralling work of narrative nonfiction—Cep’s debut—and a poignant meditation on a book that never was."—O Magazine
"[A] well-told, ingeniously structured double mystery—one an unsolved serial killing, the other an elusive book—rich in droll humour and deep but lightly worn research"
“A brilliant take on the mystery of inspiration and the even darker mysteries of the human heart.” —People
“What I didn't see coming was the emotional response I'd have as I blazed through the last 20 pages of the book — yet there I was, weeping…A gripping, incredibly well-written portrait of not only Harper Lee, but of mid-20th century Alabama — and a still-unanswered set of crimes to rival the serial killers made infamous in the same time period.” —Ilana Masad, NPR
“Cep’s book is a marvel. In elegant prose, she gives us the fullest story yet of Lee’s post-Mockingbird life in New York–boozy, unproductive, modest despite her means, yet full of books and theater–and her quest in Alabama, where she grew close to Radney and his family, to tell the Maxwell story. Cep’s is an account emotionally attuned to the toll that great writing takes, and shows that sometimes one perfect book is all we can ask for, even while we wish for another.” —Lucas Wittmann, Time
"Remarkable, thoroughly researched... the great, acrobatic trick Cep accomplishes is to deliver a book so richly detailed and full of thoughtfully condensed research without having access to any of its three main subjects: Willie Maxwell, Tom Radney, and Lee... Cep has a knack for a chapter-ending cliffhanger and building a sort of eerie tension... At her best, Cep manages the feat that all great nonfiction aspires to: combining the clean precision of fact with the urgency of gossip." —Margaret Eby, The New York Review of Books
“[E]xemplary literary true crime…Gripping and meticulous, Cep’s work doesn’t make us choose between fidelity and style.” —Boris Kachka, Vulture
“In Cep’s thrilling account of an Alabama murderer, his killer, and the lawyer who got them both off, we get to see the To Kill a Mockingbird author hot on the trail of some slippery characters while she struggles to write a worthy follow-up to her iconic novel.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Tells a crime story but also says a great deal about the racial, cultural and political history of the South. As a portrayal of the life of a writer, the section on Lee is by itself worth the price of admission.” —John Glassie, The Washington Post
"Cep narrates this saga atmospherically and with empathy. There are lyrical passages... plus judicious detail... Excursions into the annals of life insurance fraud and folkways of voodoo are fascinating.”—Stephen Phillips, The Los Angeles Times
“Casey Cep’s Furious Hours does something wholly unique: in exploring the bizarre circumstances linking a breadth of crimes—murder and insurance fraud, the failures of the criminal justice system, and the legacy of racism in the South—Cep probes at the mystery of a place built on slave labor, where injustice has seeped into the soil and the courtroom itself is an engine of inequity.” —Camille Leblanc, CrimeReads
“This riveting account of both the murders and Lee’s reporting, writing, and editing process is fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at one of the South’s cherished creative minds.”—CJ Lotz, Garden & Gun
"Fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful.” —Adam Morgan, Longreads
“In Furious Hours, Casey Cep gives readers a brilliant history of the life-insurance industry (it's more exciting that it sounds!), a riveting true crime story, and a dazzling biography of one of America's most beloved writers.” —Bustle
"It’s been a long time since I picked up a book so impossible to put down. Furious Hours made me forget dinner, ignore incoming calls, and stay up reading into the small hours. It’s a work of literary and legal detection as gripping as a thriller. But it’s also a meditation on motive and mystery, the curious workings of history, hope, and ambition, justice, and the darkest matters of life and death. Casey Cep’s investigation into an infamous Southern murder trial and Harper Lee’s quest to write about it is a beautiful, sobering, and sometimes chilling triumph."
—Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk
- Publisher : Knopf; 1st edition (May 7, 2019)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1101947861
- ISBN-13 : 978-1101947869
- Item Weight : 1.55 pounds
- Best Sellers Rank: #79,450 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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The book is composed of three parts. Part One tells the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a charismatic but vilified preacher who was rumored to practice voodoo. After a string of family deaths, in which all the victims were covered by life insurance polices that benefited Maxwell, he is shot dead by another family member at the funeral of his last victim. Part Two covers Tom Radney, the lawyer who first defended Maxwell when he was accused of killing his first wife and went on to successfully defend the man who killed Maxwell. Part Three brings in Harper Lee, who was fascinated by the case and spent years researching it.
The writing is brilliant. The first chapter, which describes the region of south Alabama where the events took place, is evocative and rich. I lived in Alabama for most of my life and was impressed that a non-Southerner captured both the geography of place as well as highlighting so vividly the oppressed attitudes and politics of the state. Occasionally the author lost my interest, such as when she gives a world history of life insurance or the section on Radney, who is a great character in the book but unless you enjoy courtroom recreations, it is a bit of a yawn.
The book rebounds, however, in the last section which covers the life of Harper Lee. Apparently, the author had access to Lee's private letters which she quotes frequently. Lee's childhood, family life, education, college years, and her move to New York City where she eventually wrote “Mockingbird” is wonderfully detailed and provides great insight into her later years when she struggled to produce a follow-up.
Lee's friendship with Capote is also extensively discussed as well as her stint working with him to gather research for his masterpiece “In Cold Blood”. On Capote, the author writes “most of the people of Garden City (Kansas) had no idea what to make of the orchid that had suddenly invaded their wheat fields”.
A fascinating, beautifully written and skillfully researched book that brings to light one of the most bizarre cases in American history.
Casey Cep has put together a history of a serial killer (more like someone who had no problem using murder to cash in on insurance), a liberal lawyer who was happy to defend all comers, and Harper Lee's curmudgeonly life of her later years looking for something, anything, to give herself one last literary break.
All three elements come together with the use of old records, stories, interviews, and exactly the sort of deep, deep attention to detail that you'd expect from a New Yorker journalist. If there's a fact she can uncover, she includes it - so you have history not just of people but of the insurance industry, publishing, and all sort of intriguing offshoots.
But - the drawback with this approach is you can only go as far as it will take you, and there are stones impossible to uncover. The "Reverend" Maxwell is dead - so any insight into his motivation dies with him (although, it's pretty clearly money), I don't exactly understand why lawyer Tom Radney would defend such an obviously guilty criminal so many times (again, probably the money), and it's not entirely clear why Harper Lee took up the story, and then dropped it - there's room for speculation, sure, but it never *quite* comes into focus.
Bottom line seems to be she just couldn't come up with the literary angle, or her drinking led to writer's block, or she just lost interest, or she couldn't decide between fiction and fact, or without a great editor to help she couldn't self-direct, or...so there's a lot of questions about what happened at the end.
I don't mind having unanswered questions, and this look into a forgotten history of a literary icon is worth it no matter what - but it reminded me that as good a researcher as Cep or others can be, you can't read minds. Lee had her own flaws that her fame probably exacerbated. This is certainly not a comprehensive biography of any one part of this story - the facts are lost to history - but it's pretty interesting all the same. If you're a fan of Harper Lee and want further insight into her life and creative choices (or lack of choices), this is an intriguing book.
Top reviews from other countries
Turgid & irritating to read, it could be double the book at half the length. This is more the fault of the editor than the author.
That said, it does provide interesting background to In Cold Blood ( Capote) and To Kill a Mockingbird. A must-read for students of the above; perhaps not for the rest of us (until edited!).