Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper
Lee” by Casey Cep; Knopf (314 pages, $26.95)
of bizarre murders that were never really solved and the
beloved American novelist who never quite figured out
how to write about them — it doesn’t sound like the
formula for a compelling book.
the more than capable hands of journalist Casey Cep, it
adds up to a most fascinating read. “Furious Hours:
Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee”
combines true crime of the Southern gothic variety,
complete with elements of race and rumors of dark magic,
with an insightful biography of Harper Lee, whose
Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, “To Kill a
Mockingbird,” became one of the classics of 20th
century American literature and indelibly shaped the
image of the South. It’s also, as far as we know, the
last book Lee ever completed.
Hours” is Cep’s first book, but her articles have
appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and
elsewhere, and often Lee has been her subject. Cep
extensively covered the odd circumstances around the
2015 publication of Lee’s novel “Go Set a
Watchman” (written before Mockingbird but published 55
years after it) and, in 2016, the author’s death.
section of “Furious Hours,” “The Reverend,”
tells the story that so captured Lee’s imagination
that she spent a year researching the case and many more
years trying to write about it. It happened in and
around Alexander City, Ala., northeast of Lee’s
hometown of Monroeville, the inspiration for the Maycomb
of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
man named Willie Maxwell returned to the area after
serving in World War II and went to work in the textile
mills and pulpwood operations. He also became a preacher
for Baptist churches with black congregations (churches,
and most everything else, being strictly segregated in
that time and place).
married and built a reputation as a hard and reliable
worker. Tall, handsome and always elegantly dressed, he
was a popular preacher. Then, in 1970, Mary Lou Maxwell,
his wife of 21 years, was found brutally beaten to death
in her car on the side of a road near their home.
days, the Rev. Maxwell filed to collect a $15,000 life
insurance policy he had purchased “for twenty-five
cents shortly before his wife’s death,” Cep writes,
“shortly enough, in fact, that he never had to pay the
twelve dollars required to renew it.”
also charged with murdering her, but he was found not
guilty after his neighbor, Dorcas Anderson, changed her
testimony about what happened the night Mary Lou died.
few months, Maxwell married Dorcas. She was dead a year
later, and Maxwell’s brother and nephew also died
under mysterious circumstances. Maxwell had life
insurance policies — often multiple ones — on all of
them. In two years, he collected almost $100,000, so
much that insurance companies began canceling his
policies and refusing to sell him new ones.
investigated the deaths but never came up with enough
evidence to charge him. Rumors swirled around Alexander
City that he was a voodoo practitioner. Improbably
enough, he got married a third time, to Ophelia Burns,
who had been charged with abetting Mary Lou’s death
but not convicted.
the summer of 1977, 16-year-old Shirley Ann Ellington, a
niece of Ophelia’s whom the Maxwells had adopted, was
found dead at an obviously faked accident scene. At her
funeral, Robert Burns, a law-abiding truck driver who
was a relative of Shirley’s, stood up and shot Maxwell
in the head, three times.
next wild twist, Burns hired lawyer Tom Radney to defend
him against the murder charge. The second section of the
book, “The Lawyer,” dives into Radney’s background
and Southern politics. A white liberal who had
campaigned for Robert Kennedy — which made him utterly
exotic in rural Alabama — Radney had for years been
Maxwell’s attorney, in the case of Mary Lou’s death
and in civil suits against the insurance companies.
had profited from those insurance policies, but he
cheerfully set about defending the man who killed his
former client (in front of about 300 witnesses) with a
highly risky insanity defense.
Writer,” the third section of “Furious Hours,” Cep
analyzes the reasons for Lee’s interest in the trial
by looking at her entire life. Lee had cut her teeth in
courtrooms; the daughter of an esteemed lawyer, A.C. Lee
(the model for Atticus Finch), she dropped out of law
school just weeks shy of graduating to pursue writing.
recounts her struggles in New York City to write a novel
and describes the steps that led to Mockingbird and its
phenomenal success. As Lee was awaiting its publication,
she undertook another task that would later help spark
her interest in the Maxwell case: She signed on as
Truman Capote’s researcher for a New Yorker article
that would become In Cold Blood, a classic of the true
Capote had been childhood friends in Monroeville, and
their long relationship was a fractious combination of
love and competition. The epigraph of Furious Hours is
something Lee said about Capote: “We are bound by a
doesn’t directly address the claims that it was Lee
who actually wrote “In Cold Blood,” but she makes
clear what an enormous amount of work Lee put into the
research — and what reservations she had about
Capote’s loose interpretation of “nonfiction.”
Their differences over “In Cold Blood” might have
had as much to do with their later estrangement as
Capote’s reported resentment of Lee’s celebrity (and
herself came to detest celebrity, and she floundered for
years over a second book. Then, 17 years after
Mockingbird was published, came the trail of Robert
Burns, and Lee headed for Alexander City.
describes how the Maxwell case appealed to Lee on many
levels (not just Tom Radney’s notion that he was a
latter-day Atticus) — its roots in race and class in a
small Southern town, its intimate but mysterious
murders, its stark act of revenge. And it was an
opportunity to write a true crime book whose accuracy
and adherence to the truth she could control.
proved to be a complicated task. “Lee had committed
herself to a book built from facts,” Cep writes,
“but when it came to the story of the Reverend
Maxwell, those were hard to come by and harder still to
years, the book was rumored to be imminent: “Many
people knew the title. One woman claimed to have seen a
book jacket. Big Tom (Radney) had heard from Lee more
than once that the book was on its way to the publisher
or that the galleys were already back from the printer.
… Someone claimed Louise (Lee’s sister) had read the
whole thing at her kitchen table in Eufaula and declared
it better than In Cold Blood.”
the story of the book that never came to light into an
account of the strange last days of Lee’s life, with
all its legal entanglements and questions about the
publication of Go Set a Watchman, which she had long
declared would never see print.
last years, Cep writes, Lee no longer talked about the
book she called “The Reverend.” It “remained as
mysterious as the man whose life inspired it.”
the most tantalizing mystery Cep leaves us to
contemplate: “Nelle Harper Lee’s estate is sealed.
The entirety of her literary assets, including whatever
else exists of “The Reverend,” remains unpublished