Sunday, June 2, 2019

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

Here is the meditative Liszt's Benedition de Dieux.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper LeeFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I went to Books a Million and the salesclerk volunteered information that I had never known. As someone employed by the local university (I'm a musician; I don't teach) I get a discount card for free AND every purchase 20% off. Well, sign me up!

What this mostly means is I get a lot of cheap coffee, but I must admit my book purchasing at BAM has increased. Those wily sales team marketers in BAM administration know what they're doing.

Which is why I bought a book I never would have otherwise. I mean at full price...well, with the twenty percent discount. If I had waited for it to become a best seller, it would have been 40%.

Still, I really could not resist the premise of this book.

Casey Cep researches into a long, forgotten episode in the deep South, made more interesting by the fact the Harper Lee collected thousands of records and notes about it.

In a small Alabama town, the Reverend Willie Maxwell is an itinerant, black preacher. One evening his car breaks down and he calls his wife to pick him up. After telling her neighbor she was off to fetch her husband, she leaves and disappears.

The next day her body is found inside her car. She had been beaten to death.

And the Reverend collects on a substantial amount of life insurance from several insurance companies.

Reverend Maxwell is suspected but nothing is proven and he's acquitted. The prime witness, the next door neighbor recanted her original story about the wife coming over.

And guess who the next Mrs. Maxwell is? The neighbor, whose husband has conveniently died.

Thus starts a series of murders of the Reverend Maxwell's family members, yes, the second wife doesn't last. Her body is found much the same way the first one was. A nephew is killed. A step daughter....all of whom had massive life insurance claims.

Yet every time the Reverend was acquitted. Because of an ambitious lawyer who saw himself as a pioneering Civil Rights attorney. The case against the Reverend was racism..blah, blah, blah. I think the Lawyer, Big Tom was more interested in making a name for himself than protecting the rights of black people. All the murder victims were black. Where was their justice?

The black community held the Reverend in awe and fear, but one man decided that he would take the law into his own hands.

At the funeral of Maxwell's step daughter, another man, Robert Burns, stands up, turns around, and fires point blank at the Reverend, who is dead before he falls out of the pew he was sitting in.

Robert Burns goes to trial and guess who defends him? Big Tom. And how does he defend him? By proving that the man he murdered, Reverend Maxwell, was in fact a cold blooded murderer. Burns gets off with an insanity plea and is a free man a few weeks later as the mental hospital deems him "sane" again.

That is the bare bones of the story. There is a lot I liked and enjoyed reading, with a few, I won't call them complaints, but things I wish were included.

First of all, don't buy this book thinking you're going to get a real life thriller. At this point in time, almost fifty years after the fact, there are few living witnesses of what happened. Most of the people in the book are dead, so Casey Cep did not have a lot to work with.

In order to rectify that, she adds a lot of filler in the form of background information of everything mentioned in the book: the history of life insurance companies, of property domains, the insanity plea, the political career of Big Tom, naturally a bit of the racial tensions in Alabama and finally, a fairly good if cursory biography of Harper Lee, her friendship and work with Truman Capote. She writes almost as much about Lee and Capote's research for his book Cold Blood as she does the trial of Maxwell.

It's like a beef stew with a few ounces of meat suffocated with potatoes and flour and broth.

Now, personally, I found all the background information interesting if not also a bunch of rabbit trails. I wish Cep had been able to find more information about Maxwell than describe in detail her personal speculation about the black communities' superstitions, concerning the Reverend's involvement with VooDoo. First of all, she admits that the black community is "very quiet" about these beliefs, but she is sure they are there.

This is the seventies, not the 19th century. She does not hold a very high view of black people in the south if she thinks they are all crippled with superstitious fear. I mean, I know that movie with Kate Hudson (The Skeleton Key?) depicts black people in New Orleans like that and it's meant to be a compliment, but I think it's condescending.

Not to say that no one was superstitious, it just isn't limited to black people. My father grew up in the hills of North Carolina and Virginia and my grandmother and cousins could terrorize me with some of their ghost stories. My cousin Mark would come over and regale me and my sisters with the scariest stories...always at the time he left, we would be shivering under our covers.

But I digress.

As I said, I found all the background information very interesting, if only loosely related to the main plot. I wish there had been more information about the actual murder. More background on the victims as well as the Reverend and his murderer, Burns.

Harper Lee sat in on the trials and took copious notes and then sat on them. Cep speculates as to why the book never materialized.

I wonder as well. How many books are great writers expected to produce? The best did not write more than a few. Some wrote more but many only wrote five or six, and Lee wasn't the only one to write only one.

That must be a lot of pressure for a writer. You finally get a publisher, you turn out to be a cash cow, so now they want lots more of your stuff. But what if you only had one good book in you? Is that so wrong?

The writers that plow them out year in year out, are more on the level of entertainers and I quickly add there is nothing wrong with that. I'm addicted to Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout and Georges Simenon and grateful they wrote so many books for me to enjoy.

But I wonder about myself. I have five books I am currently writing (yes, long story, no pun intended), but do I really have anything else to say?

Well, I have digressed again. I hope that I have given an adequate enough overview to allow those of you reading this review to make an informed decision as to whether this book is your cup of tea, or not, as I am fond of saying.

Speaking of which, my tea is getting cold so I will sign off.

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Brian Joseph said...

Super review Sharon. What a wild story! I think that if someone had made a fictional film with a plot like this it would have been called implausible.

You raise very good points about authors. I have also thought that sometimes a writer can be capable of greatness just once or twice. So much effort and energy goes into writing a book. I can also see how an author can produce a series of great books but easily could produce a few duds.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian!

That's a good point about plausible plots, which is why the most effective story lines are based on or inspired by real life. Real life doesn't really follow the normal story arc.

To the 2nd point: I think that some authors decide that they like the regular paycheck and stick to a certain formula.

mudpuddle said...

unbelievable!! i live in such a cloistered little world; things like that seem remote, but they probably happen around here as well... v. interesting post; maybe Ms. Lee got scared off? i really feel for authors who write and write and never get published... there ought to be a way for them to get a little recognition anyhow... and you're writing 5 books? cosa increible! how do you keep all that straight?

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle.

It is strange. Cep describes Lee as spending hours daily writing, yet never producing anything after To Kill a Mockingbird. And she was sneered at a little by some of the other writers: Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullors. I think was a lonely person and her never publishing another book will always be something of a mystery.

And as for my own writing. I am determined to have one of my books finished and published before the year is out, either by agent or self-published. I hope my blog readers (heh, heh) will be interested.

mudpuddle said...

me, for one... good luck with it!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Acute of you to see past my subtle insinuations, mudpuddle.

mudpuddle said...


Sharon Wilfong said...


Carol said...

Wow! That book must have taken you some effort to review. Have you ever read 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'? Nothing like the book you read but I thought of it when you commented on the racial tack the lawyer took.
Are your books in the making fiction/nonfiction?

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Carol. I have checked out Henrietta Lacks from my library and plan to read it in the next couple of weeks.

My books would fall under the genre fiction, however, they are inspired by real life. Although my last two I have branched out and written a "ghost" story and a detective one, both from a Christian worldview.