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.