Book Review: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

In the 1970s, in rural Alabama, an African-American preacher named Willie Maxwell was accused of murdering  several of his family members to collect insurance money. Thanks in part to his attorney, these allegations were never proven true, and Maxwell evaded justice until he was shot and killed by a relative at his final victim’s funeral. Robert Burns, the man who pulled the trigger, was represented by the same shrewd lawyer who once defended Maxwell. Despite hundreds of witnesses and his own confession, Burns was acquitted of the crime.

Following this fascinating case was none other than one-time novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee. Inspired by her friend Truman Capote’s true-crime classic, In Cold Blood (which Lee was instrumental in helping bring to life), Lee decided to write her own nonfiction account of a sensational murder case. She traveled to Willie Maxwell’s small town in Alabama and began the long, drawn-out process of conducting interviews and collecting research. But this book never came to fruition, disappointing countless fans who had waited decades to read something new by the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In Furious Hours, Cep blends elements of courtroom drama and true crime with insights into racial politics of the Deep South, voodoo, and insurance fraud. She also sheds light on one of America’s most beloved authors and explores what happens when a successful writer loses faith in her own potential.

Review by Shannon Bowring, Technical Services Coordinator

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