The makings of a fascinating tale are certainly present, and Cep writes with wonderful evocation and intelligence about the racial, political and cultural backgrounds against which this drama took place. But most of its readers will presumably be drawn to the book by an interest in Harper Lee, and she does not appear until the final of the book’s three sections.
Casey Cep has published excellent pieces in the New Yorker on Lee’s post-Mockingbird(and posthumous) career. She outlined the Maxwell/Burns story in a 2015 article, and Furious Hours is that story fleshed out. Padded out too, it must be said. The book lacks the incisiveness of Cep’s articles and suffers from what seems an anxiety about some of the unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions it raises; it flings up quantities of data-dust about marginally relevant subjects as if in the hope of concealing its more significant gaps. A survey of the insurance business going back to the Fire of London doesn’t seem crucial to an understanding of the reverend’s deadly scams, and certainly doesn’t get us inside his enigmatic head. A rehash of Governor George Wallace’s political career does little to illuminate the equivocations of Radney’s. The book never quite resolves the problem of its related but separate subjects (as witnessed by its laborious subtitle), and wobbles tonally between academic dryness and a more down-home style (‘the rumours about him grew taller than loblolly pines’) as if fitfully trying to channel Lee at her folksiest.
Casey Cep’s book is subtitled Murder, Fraud and and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, but there is a bit of work to do before we get to the To Kill A Mockingbird writer and her late-career interest in the Maxwell case. There is an earnestness in Cep’s telling, a fact-checked stasis. You get a history of the insurance industry. You get a history of voodoo. On the death of Mary Lou we detour to the Scottsboro boys and the founding of the Alabama bureau of forensics, but you get the feeling that the real histories are just out of reach, undocumented in the savage reaches of the secessionist south... Cep writes beautifully when she steps away from what feels like mid-Manhatten house style. “Ghost bells, war cries, the clanging of slave chains: if ever a land came by its haunting honestly it is eastern Alabama.” You find yourself wanting more of this, you want to get closer to Willie Maxwell’s dark heart. But you are up against the undocumented, oral histories, everything sealed in the hermetics of race politics, fear and suspicion. Sometimes it takes more than dispassion and objectivity to get under the surface, to get close to James Agee’s “. . . effort in human actuality”. Capote knew this. It is why he invented sequences of In Cold Blood when reality wouldn’t do, the dead often more vivid than the living, the imagined more real than the actual, the work haunted by writers looking in the wrong places.
Luckily, although some overall narrative momentum is inevitably lost, almost every individual part of the book rattles along compulsively, while also providing some neat and telling changes of perspective. As well as the enthralling central story, there’s plenty of great stuff on the always eye-popping business of southern politics. And perhaps best of all, Furious Hours triumphantly rescues Harper Lee from the myth she’s been in danger of disappearing into – and restores her to full and recognisable human life.
It is to the credit of Casey Cep, a writer for The New Yorker and The New York Times, that she has pulled this extraordinary story together. Furious Hours is, in effect, three books. First, the story of Maxwell, the war veteran turned voodoo priest turned serial killer and fraudster. Then there is Big Tom Radney, the good old boy liberal lawyer, “a man who liked to loosen his collar”, who had so much in common with Lee’s lawyer father. And finally there’s Lee. The material Cep has collected on this complex character amounts to an interesting biography in its own right. It is not until halfway through the book that we get to Lee’s involvement with the Maxwell/Radney case, and the threads come together. This chronology seems risky, but the wait is worthwhile. With its rich cast of characters, the polar opposite settings of New York and rural Alabama, Cep’s dark humour and painstaking research, there is a great deal to enjoy. If I have one criticism, it is that dropping a detailed history of the life insurance industry on us in chapter three tests a reader’s commitment, but this was a minor hiccup in a rich and rewarding read.
Cep writes about all this with great skill, sensitivity and attention to detail. The book does, however, suffer from three substantial problems, two of them, admittedly, not of Cep’s making. One is the frustrating secrecy that still surrounds Lee, which means most papers about her remain under lock and key. There is, too, the dying fall of Lee’s own life, which leads to the book ending on a frustratingly low-key note.
The third fault, however, is Cep’s own, and has to do with the structure of the book, as we are introduced first to Maxwell, then Radney (someone who should probably have taken a narrative back seat) and finally, more than halfway through the story, to Lee herself, each time being taken back to what feels like the beginning. That this doesn’t fatally upend the whole project has much to do with Cep’s other skills as a narrator, and the intense fascination of the subject she’s writing about.