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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 was not late enough for the Alabama heat to have died down, and the air- conditioning in the courtroom 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.
 

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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.

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.

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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—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.

 

  • Furious Hours

  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION

    A triumph on every level. One of the losses to literature is that Harper Lee never found a way to tell a gothic true-crime story she’d spent years researching. Casey Cep has excavated this mesmerizing story and tells it with grace and insight and a fierce fidelity to the truth.
    DAVID GRANN, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
    _____________________________
    The stunning 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. Lee had the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research. She spent a year in town reporting on the Maxwell case and many more years trying to finish the book she called The Reverend.

    Now 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 deeply moving portrait of one of America’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success and the mystery of artistic creativity.

    This is the story Harper Lee wanted to write. This is the story of why she couldn’t.
    _____________________________
    'Fascinating ... Cep has spliced together a Southern-gothic tale of multiple murder and the unhappy story of Lee’s literary career, to produce a tale that is engrossing in its detail and deeply poignant... [Cep] spends the first third of Furious Hours following the jaw-dropping trail of murders ... Engrossing ... Cep writes about all this with great skill, sensitivity and attention to detail.'
    SUNDAY TIMES

    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

    'This story is just too good ... Furious Hours builds and builds until it collides with the writer who saw the power of Maxwell’s story, but for some reason was unable to harness it. It lays bare the inner life of a woman who had a world-class gift for hiding ... [this] book makes a magical 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, author of Moneyball and The Big Short

  • Buy the book

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