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

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

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 t...

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Title:Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Author:Casey Cep
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Susan

    Seventeen years since the publication of, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee lat in a courtroom in Alabama. She was planning to write a true crime book about the case she was watching, but that book was never published. In this volume, author, Casey Cep, writes not only a compelling explanation as to why this book never appeared, but also combines true crime and biography, in a riveting account of a crime and the characters involved.

    She begins by looking at the murder victim, the Reverend Willi

    Seventeen years since the publication of, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee lat in a courtroom in Alabama. She was planning to write a true crime book about the case she was watching, but that book was never published. In this volume, author, Casey Cep, writes not only a compelling explanation as to why this book never appeared, but also combines true crime and biography, in a riveting account of a crime and the characters involved.

    She begins by looking at the murder victim, the Reverend Willie Maxwell, whose exploits almost defy belief. Born in 1925, Maxwell was a man who had a tendency to insure almost everyone within his orbit; benefiting by their deaths, which seemed to happen with alarming regularity and in suspiciously similar circumstances.

    The second character was lawyer, Tom Radney, who swopped from dealing with Maxwell’s, seemingly endless, insurance claims, to defending his killer. Through looking at Radney, Cep manages to incorporate the history and politics of the area. To my mind, the talk of sharecroppers, voodoo and unspoken segregation, spoke of an earlier age, and it was almost a shock to discover that this book took place, mostly in the Seventies.

    Lastly, the author turns her attention to Harper Lee, looking at her life, her friendship with Truman Capote, and her first experience with writing true crime, when she was involved in the research for, “In Cold Blood.” I knew very little about Harper Lee, so I think I found this the most interesting part of the book, although, to be honest, I was riveted by all of it.

    It is hard to imagine that this is a debut, as it is so self-assured and well written. I trust that Casey Cep has further works planned, as she is an author to watch. A fascinating account of a crime, with excellent historical and literary background. I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review and recommend it highly.

  • Carolyn

    Casey Cep has written a fascinating account about Harper Lee's obsession with writing a true crime novel about the Reverend Willie Maxwell, who murdered five family members in Alabama for the insurance policies he took out on them and got away with it. After giving a eulogy for his stepdaughter (one of the five relatives he was suspected of killing) at her funeral in 1977 he was infamously shot dead in front of 300 people by Robert Burns, an uncle of the dead girl. Harper Lee not only attended B

    Casey Cep has written a fascinating account about Harper Lee's obsession with writing a true crime novel about the Reverend Willie Maxwell, who murdered five family members in Alabama for the insurance policies he took out on them and got away with it. After giving a eulogy for his stepdaughter (one of the five relatives he was suspected of killing) at her funeral in 1977 he was infamously shot dead in front of 300 people by Robert Burns, an uncle of the dead girl. Harper Lee not only attended Burns' trial but spent years collecting a meticulous amount of research about Willie Maxwell for a book that she proposed calling "The Reverend". Although, by all accounts, Harper Lee collected more than enough information for writing the book and never stopped working, the book never eventuated.

    In writing the book, Cep has retraced Lee's steps, interviewing the witnesses and lawyers involved. She was also lucky enough to be able to look at the same briefcase of documents on Maxwell that Tom Radney originally provided to Lee. The book is organised into three sections in order to highlight this extraordinary case. In the first section, we learn of Willie Maxwell's life, the murders he almost certainly committed and the extensive life insurance claims he made after his victims died amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The second section is focused on the lawyer, Tom Radney who successfully defended Maxwell and sued any reluctant insurance companies for payment of policies. In a strange turn of events, Radney was also the lawyer who defended Robert Burns on the charge of killing Willie Maxwell.

    Having set the scene, the final section is an account of Harper Lee's life, leading up to her interest in the Maxwell case, including her lifelong relationship with Truman Capote and her unrecognised contribution to the research for his book "In Cold Blood". Although not concluding why Lee was never able to finish her book on the Reverend, Cep gives a sympathetic account of the struggles and barriers that Lee might have faced in the decades after "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published, that may have contributed to her inability to complete a manuscript she was happy to send to an editor.

    This book hooked me in, first with the amazing case of William Maxwell and his ability to get away with so much probable fraud and murder and then with the account of Harper Lee's attempts to write what would have been a fascinating book. Highly recommended!

  • Lou

    I must start by saying that Furious Hours is probably the best true crime work I have had the pleasure of reading; it has so much more to it than one would initially imagine and that's what makes it such a gripping book. It's an amalgamation of true crime, American history, legal thriller and biography of Harper Lee, which is a very interesting mix and works well. For many years Lee was obsessed with one particular case - that of church minister Reverend Willie Maxwell, and set in the context of

    I must start by saying that Furious Hours is probably the best true crime work I have had the pleasure of reading; it has so much more to it than one would initially imagine and that's what makes it such a gripping book. It's an amalgamation of true crime, American history, legal thriller and biography of Harper Lee, which is a very interesting mix and works well. For many years Lee was obsessed with one particular case - that of church minister Reverend Willie Maxwell, and set in the context of the time and place - 1970s rural Alabama, United States - it provides much thought-provoking information on the racial, political, cultural and societal circumstances at the time.

    It's certainly very easy to get swept up in this story, and I indeed was. Part of my fascination, being a law graduate, was the trial of Reverend Maxwell's killer and seeing the differences in American law when compared to the British and the nuances of the system. The case begins with murder and insurance fraud and from that point onwards the body count grows and grows. As it is a little-known case it's one many people, including myself, will not have been aware of; this is quite refreshing as most true crime books focus on infamous crimes and convicts.

    The depiction of the deep south, also referred to as the gothic south, is vivid and evocative, and Casey Cep does a wonderful job of writing the book that Lee worked on for years after her most celebrated work, To Kill a Mockingbird, but could not finish. Included is information on the development and growth of the insurance business, paying particular attention to life insurance which it is widely believed was the motive behind the Reverend's killing spree. The irony of the lawyer, Tom Radney, who managed to get Maxwell acquitted, later repeats this in respect of Maxwell's killer, Robert Burns.

    The first half focuses on the case and trial whilst the second discusses lawyer Tom Radney and the final section goes into detail about Harper Lee herself. Her struggle to become accustomed to the fame and fortune that comes with achieving bestseller status and her perfectionist tendencies which led to her being unable to complete and release this book in her lifetime as she'd planned. I loved that we found out more than we ever have before about the enigmatic Ms Lee. All in all, this is a brilliantly compelling and well-structured work of non-fiction and the engaging writing and touch of humour keep you turning the pages long after the sun goes down. Many thanks to William Heinemann for an ARC.

  • Jill Meyer

    "Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee", by Casey Cep, is my favorite type of book. It's a work of non-fiction that reads like fiction. It's a bit of a strange book - Cep writes three different stories that she doesn't bring together til the end, but somehow, it comes together beautifully.

    Harper Lee, long famed for "To Kill A Mockingbird", never published another book during her lifetime. After her death in 2016, an unfinished manuscript was published by her estate. The

    "Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee", by Casey Cep, is my favorite type of book. It's a work of non-fiction that reads like fiction. It's a bit of a strange book - Cep writes three different stories that she doesn't bring together til the end, but somehow, it comes together beautifully.

    Harper Lee, long famed for "To Kill A Mockingbird", never published another book during her lifetime. After her death in 2016, an unfinished manuscript was published by her estate. The book, a prequel of sorts to "Mockingbird" was called "Go Set a Watchman" , was fairly panned by critics and readers. But Lee had been quietly been working on another book a few years after "Mockingbird"; a true crime book set in Alabama was to be her second book.

    Getting back to Casey Cep. Her book is the story of the true crime - a black pastor in Alabama was suspected in five murders of his own family, including two of his three wives. Part one is "The Reverend". He was murdered in cold blood at the funeral of his last victim. All the victims had been heavily insured by the killer and Cep does a great job at looking at Reverend Willie Maxwell and his world in rural Alabama. Her writing is as good as Thomas Thomson's in his true crime books. The second part of the book, "The Lawyer", is about local lawyer Tom Radney, who defended both Willie Maxwell AND the man who gunned down Maxwell. Radney - that rare bird in Alabama, a Democrat - has his own stories of life-as-a-liberal.

    Part three is "The Writer" and is the story of Harper Lee in the years since the publication of "To Kill A Mockingbird". Living in both New York City and Alabama, Harper Lee can't seem to get it together to write another book. She seemed to enjoy her fame, but, at the same time, run for cover when she's recognised. She lost her publishing support team when her editor and manager died in New York and she aged along with her two older sisters in Alabama. It was during the 1970's Harper Lee decided to investigate the Reverend Willie Maxwell's murders and his own. But, she couldn't seem to put her notes to book form. Eventually, she gave up investigating and "Go Set a Watchman" was her last book.

    Casey Cep is such a good writer that all the book was interesting, not just the part about Harper Lee. I highly recommend it.

  • Kathleen

    Harper Lee was intrigued with the true-crime story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell. She did an amazing amount of research, and then floundered when she tried to write a tale that would appeal to her many fans. Cep has succeeded where Lee failed.

    Willie Maxwell was born in Alabama in 1925, served two tours in the Army, and earned a Good Conduct Medal. He married Mary Lou in 1947, worked two jobs and preached at three different churches. At least, he did so until people around him started dying—firs

    Harper Lee was intrigued with the true-crime story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell. She did an amazing amount of research, and then floundered when she tried to write a tale that would appeal to her many fans. Cep has succeeded where Lee failed.

    Willie Maxwell was born in Alabama in 1925, served two tours in the Army, and earned a Good Conduct Medal. He married Mary Lou in 1947, worked two jobs and preached at three different churches. At least, he did so until people around him started dying—first his wife Mary Lou, then his neighbor’s husband Abram Anderson, his 2nd wife—Dorcus Anderson, his brother J.C. Maxwell, his nephew James Hicks, and finally, his step-daughter, Shirley Ann Ellington. Funny thing, the Reverend was the beneficiary of insurance policies on most of these victims. Indeed, this showcases the odd practice whereby life insurance policies could be taken out on people without them ever knowing about it.

    It was no surprise that a relative of Shirley Ann took issue with the bizarre circumstances of her death. However, it WAS a surprise when he shot Willie Maxwell three times AT HER FUNERAL. Talk about vigilante justice! Clearly he needs a REALLY GOOD attorney. Enter Defense Attorney Tom Radney!

    And who chose to attend the sensational trial, take copious notes and interview anyone and everyone associated with the case? You guessed it, Nelle Harper Lee. Cep provides a window on the life of the reclusive author—including her long friendship with Truman Capote beginning when they were children. I certainly did not know that she provided a lot of the research for Capote’s In Cold Blood. Highly recommend.

  • Kyra Leseberg (Roots & Reads)

    4.5 stars

    I was fascinated with the character of Scout Finch in Harper Lee's masterpiece

     when I was a kid.  

    When I re-read the novel for my high school lit class, I was in awe of the layers of the story and its topics that are only complicated by growing up.  Scout kept it honest and that's what made her the perfect narrator; the adults are what complicated matters.

    I knew Harper Lee had never published another novel but when I decided to look into work she'd done in the foll

    4.5 stars

    I was fascinated with the character of Scout Finch in Harper Lee's masterpiece

     when I was a kid.  

    When I re-read the novel for my high school lit class, I was in awe of the layers of the story and its topics that are only complicated by growing up.  Scout kept it honest and that's what made her the perfect narrator; the adults are what complicated matters.

    I knew Harper Lee had never published another novel but when I decided to look into work she'd done in the following years, I immediately hit a dead end in the age of Google.  Lee valued her privacy above all else and stepped out of the spotlight almost immediately after the publication of

    , which brought with it instant wealth and fame.  While she was quick to reply to letters from readers, she rarely gave interviews or attended events.

    I wondered if she'd written

    and decided it was her one and only masterpiece and put down her pen, if she'd written privately for years but never shared because she feared or resented the spotlight, or if she simply became overwhelmed at the thought of a follow up to such an important novel.  

    After turning in her final draft of

    to her publishers, Lee accompanied her life-long friend Truman Capote to Kansas where she assisted in researching the shocking murder of the Clutter family.  The notes taken by the pair later became the true-crime novel

    , which is considered Capote's masterpiece. 

    Little did I know that Lee learned about a serial killer in her home state of Alabama and a case that was so compelling she decided to write her own true-crime novel which she tentatively called

    .

    Lee (as far as we know about the secretive writer) didn't write that true-crime novel but now author Casey Cep has pieced together the facts of the case that Lee spent years researching in the upcoming novel

    .

    Readers are given the history of the small Alabama town where rural preacher Reverend Willie Maxwell grew up and what little is known about his early life.  Then, things take a curious turn.  Five of Maxwell's family members die over a short period of time, all under highly suspicious circumstances, while Maxwell holds multiple life insurance policies on each.  

    With the help of lawyer Tom Radney, Maxwell is found not guilty of the murder of his first wife and manages to collect large sums from the life insurance companies who were refusing to make payment because of the blatantly obvious crimes.  In each case, the police never gather enough solid evidence to charge Maxwell with murder.  

    At the funeral for his last victim, Maxwell is shot dead by Robert Burns in front of hundreds of witnesses.

    Robert Burns is aquitted... with the help of Tom Radney, the same lawyer who had previously defended the Reverend.  

    Writer Harper Lee is sitting in the courtroom during the trial, taking notes on what she hopes to be her next novel.

    When Lee sat down to figure out how to write

    , she realized she needed a protagonist, and set her sights on lawyer Tom Radney, who worked both sides of the curious case for years.  Radney was willing to help Lee in any way he could to get the book written and more importantly, he was an ideal morally complex character.  Radney had kept Maxwell out of prison and profited from the multiple insurance litigations and then in a surprising turn of events went on to win an aquittal for Maxwell's murderer.

    The problem was that Radney wasn't a reliable narrator.

    Lee wanted accuracy and it was maddening to find that her protagonist misremembered events of both the case and his own life.

    Looking into the early life of Maxwell was equally troublesome because there were so few records of his life before the murders.

    Short on facts, worried about the writing process and possible implications, Lee's writing floundered.  While those close to the private author knew never to ask what she was working on, she had offered information through the years on

    , and the vague details given turned into myth as people have attested to wildly different levels of its progress.

    is divided into three parts: The Reverend, The Lawyer, and The Writer.  

    Casey Cep gives us the solid facts on the life of the Reverend, from the sparse details of his beginning to his dramatic end at the funeral of his final victim.

    Next, we learn the facts of Tom Radney's life leading up to his work in the cases involving Willie Maxwell.  Cep was able to gather a wealth of information about Radney, who passed away before she began researching this book, thanks to the help of his family.

    Last but certainly not least, Cep sticks to the facts of Nelle Harper Lee's notoriously private life.  

    The mystery surrounding Lee's life and work has fascinated me to no end since I was a teen so when I learned last year that someone had taken the time to research both and that at the center of that mystery was a true crime story, there are no words for the level of excitement I experienced.

    Cep did an exceptional job of researching the case of Willie Maxwell and Harper Lee's surprising involvement.  Lee did not write the true-crime novel she set out to but thanks to Cep's research, the dramatic case has finally been placed into the hands of readers with what I believe to be the same fair and accurate reporting that Lee would've given.

    Both a fascinating true crime story and a candid look at Harper Lee's life and effort to write a second novel,

    is a compelling book* that does justice to both stories told.

    I have been anticipating this book for months.  I cannot possibly thank Knopf Publishing Group and the First To Read program enough for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy!

     is scheduled for release on May 6, 2019.

    For more reviews, visit

  • Diane S ☔

    She wrote one book, a book that defined a time period. A book that made her wealthy, but took away the privacy she cherished. She became recognizable everywhere, and though writing was her passion, this she little expected. Why did she write only one book, when everyone who knew her said writing was her passion, that she was always writing.

    The case of the Alabama minister, a man whose nearest and dearest were murdered for their insurance money. He pretty much got away with it, until the last and

    She wrote one book, a book that defined a time period. A book that made her wealthy, but took away the privacy she cherished. She became recognizable everywhere, and though writing was her passion, this she little expected. Why did she write only one book, when everyone who knew her said writing was her passion, that she was always writing.

    The case of the Alabama minister, a man whose nearest and dearest were murdered for their insurance money. He pretty much got away with it, until the last and during that trial something unexpected happened, and the lawyer who defended him now defended so done else. Nell spent too years in Alabama trying to write this story, but eventually she gave up? Why? After two years?

    The book is divided into three sections, the minister snd his heinous activities first, the lawyer next. Nell doesn't appear until halfway through the book. Having never read a biography of Harper Lee, there were some surprising facts I didn't know. Her and Capote, friend from youth, and their joint venture when Capote wanted to write, In Cold Blood. Seems some of that book was not quite accurate.

    A slower read, but I thought one that was fascinating.

    ARC from Edelweiss.g

  • Louise Wilson

    The story of an Alabama serial killer and the true - crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the rears after To Kill A Mocking Bird.

    The Reverend Willie Maxwell is a preacher who's been accused of killing five of his family members for the insurance money. But Willie always got off scott-free. He was shot in front of three hundred people. The man who shot him was defended by the lawyer that Willie used. He also managed to get the shooter off despite there being several witnesses. This

    The story of an Alabama serial killer and the true - crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the rears after To Kill A Mocking Bird.

    The Reverend Willie Maxwell is a preacher who's been accused of killing five of his family members for the insurance money. But Willie always got off scott-free. He was shot in front of three hundred people. The man who shot him was defended by the lawyer that Willie used. He also managed to get the shooter off despite there being several witnesses. This is an addictive read. The book is written in three acts. It's both fascinating and entertaining. I do recommend this book.

    I would like to thank NetGalley, Random House UK, Cornerstone and the author Casey Cep for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.

  • Maureen

    Divided into three parts, Furious Hours tells the true story of Alabama serial killer the Reverend Willie Maxwell. In the 1970’s he was accused of murdering five family members in order to collect the life insurance money. With the help of a very clever lawyer, ( although rumour had it that Maxwell used voodoo to aid his success) he escaped justice, but at the funeral of his last victim, he was shot dead by one Robert Burns.

    The first part of the book illustrates the life of Willie Maxwell, the m

    Divided into three parts, Furious Hours tells the true story of Alabama serial killer the Reverend Willie Maxwell. In the 1970’s he was accused of murdering five family members in order to collect the life insurance money. With the help of a very clever lawyer, ( although rumour had it that Maxwell used voodoo to aid his success) he escaped justice, but at the funeral of his last victim, he was shot dead by one Robert Burns.

    The first part of the book illustrates the life of Willie Maxwell, the murders, the fear that he induced in the community because he was thought to use voodoo, and the revelation that he took out insurance policies on almost everyone he had close contact with.

    The second part introduces Maxwell’s lawyer Tom Radney who strangely also represented Maxwell’s killer, and despite there being hundreds of witnesses in the church, Robert Burns walked free. Present at Burns trial was none other than Harper Lee ( To Kill a Mockingbird). She kept a low profile and spent a year gathering material for a book she was to write about this strange case, but it was a book that never came to fruition.

    The third part of the book tells the story of Harper Lee - her relationship with Truman Capote, the choices she made that shaped her future, and the struggles that she had with her writing.

    The author has painted a wonderfully in depth portrait of this great writer, and she also illustrates the cultural and political climate of the times. The research carried out to produce Furious Hours must have been immense - the practice of law and the history of life insurance are just two of the things we learn about in great detail ( perhaps a little bit too much for me) however it was a fascinating read that shone a spotlight on this somewhat mysterious writer, but I personally found the first part of the book featuring Willie Maxwell the most intriguing.

    *Thank you to Netgalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone for my ARC, for which I have given an honest unbiased review in exchange *

  • Peter

    is a truly engrossing documentary style book that brings three enthralling stories together around a series of events involving a serial killer. Each part includes the perspective of a renowned personality; Reverend Willie Maxwell (Serial Killer, Preacher), Tom Radney (Lawyer) and Harper Lee (Author).

    The structure of the book feels more like 3 shorter stories with a theme, rather than 3 integrated parts in the one story. Each part covers the biographical background of each

    is a truly engrossing documentary style book that brings three enthralling stories together around a series of events involving a serial killer. Each part includes the perspective of a renowned personality; Reverend Willie Maxwell (Serial Killer, Preacher), Tom Radney (Lawyer) and Harper Lee (Author).

    The structure of the book feels more like 3 shorter stories with a theme, rather than 3 integrated parts in the one story. Each part covers the biographical background of each character with great awareness and commentary. The research details are comprehensive and pursue threads to an extent that sometimes feel quite a distance from the connecting thread. This is especially true for the section detailing Nelle Harper Lee. That's not altogether a criticism as the narrative is great but it does feel a separate piece of work.

    Part 1, focuses on Reverend Willie Maxwell, a preacher accused, but never convicted, of murdering 5 members of his family in order to benefit from life insurance policies he held on them. The narrative reads very visually, outlining the background, history, facts and supposition, all collated from witness accounts, law-enforcement records and background research. The coverage creates a sense that various salient points are explored to their full conclusion. For example, the research into the history and operation of life insurance policies in the US is superbly detailed. The means by which Maxwell escaped prosecution and the autopsy finding on some of the deaths earned him the facade of a Voodoo Preacher.

    Part 2, the lawyer, Tom Radney, represented Reverend Maxwell in the insurance claim pay-outs and investigations. After Maxwell was shot dead he represented Robert Burns, the man accused of shooting his former client. Radney was a very colourful character that seemed to have a propensity in defending minorities and difficult unsavoury cases. His background into politics and his ability to seduce an audience, particularly a jury, is fascinating. The dialogue and exchanges of courtroom drama are entertaining and cleverly drawn by Casey Cep.

    The glamorous aspect of the story is that Harper Lee attended the court trial of Robert Burns with the intention of inspiring and generating ideas for the plot and theme of a new story. Her love of real crime, having written

    and having worked with Truman Capote in the research for his book

    had her deeply intrigued in this case. Part 3, covers in wonderful detail the biography of Nelle Harper Lee from her childhood with Truman Capote, up through her studies and writing career, before and after

    . The struggles to finally deliver her masterpiece and the issues she faced following the fame, glory and financial success, are compelling and presented in a very coherent manner.

    The Harper Lee content consumes 50% of the book, and a major friendship with Capote during many of those years shows two individuals that faced difficult internal demons but love for literature. She reflects on her childhood friendship ending as;

    I also found it quite fascinating that

    came from the amalgamation of 2 shorter stories;

    and

    . Interesting that her second and last novel was released on July 14, 2015, 56 years after her first book, and used the title

    Nelle Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016.

    At times I wondered about the structure of the book and whether the parts were tenuously held together with a convenient thread, however, the reading of the material was fabulous with its insights and revelations. The research and its presentation were extensive and to read a factual account of events in a fictional style was impressive. Having jumped between 4 and 5 stars throughout the book the closest rating would be 4.5 stars.

    The best non-fiction book I’ve read this year and I would highly recommend it. I'd like to thank Random House UK, Cornerstone and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC version in return for an honest review.

    Cover Design: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

    Title: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    Proofreading Success: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    Quality of Book Formatting: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    Book Format/Status: Kindle/ARC

    Illustrations: N/A

    Number of Pages: 311

    Number of Chapters: 24 (approx 13 pages per chapter)

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