In this debut book, Casey Cep tackles an enormously complex half-century of Alabama history and an even more complicated conglomeration of people and places.
The book begins with the racial transformation in the 1970s required by the dismantling of apartheid and ends with the death of the enigmatic Nelle Harper Lee, America’s favorite author of America’s favorite novel.
Lee kept so many secrets to herself right up to Feb. 18, 2016 (when she took a sleeping pill at Meadows Assisted Living in Monroeville, turned on her side, and never woke up) that her biographers have never forgiven her.
I have an image of her in heaven chortling with delight at books such as this one, which ponder whether or not she was a lesbian, or tried to seduce male University of Alabama professors, Maurice Crain, her agent, or even Truman Capote, her best friend, who was gay; whether or not she was demented or in her right mind at the end of her life; whether she completed a book about the most bizarre serial murderer in Alabama history; and if so, what happened to it.
Biographer Charles Shields and others have taken stabs at rendering her life and have provided useful information and insights. But they all fall short of the mark because Lee refused to assist anyone wanting to write about her while she was alive.
I never tried. She was our friend, not a subject of our enquiry. So, my wife and I never asked her the questions that other books, including this one, try inadequately to answer. We just told her our stories and listened as she told us hers.
Of the books thus far written with Lee in the foreground or even in the revealing shadows, this is the best one. Cep is a prodigious researcher, a skilled interviewer, a perceptive interpreter, and writes lyrical prose, a skill nearly lost in this technological world yearning for shorter and shorter mind-bites in compensation for information overload.
The challenge of telling one famous person’s life story is daunting enough to any writer. But to combine many stories so skillfully is a work of pure artistry. Cep devotes chapters to the history of East Alabama, from the Georgia border to Tallassee and Lake Martin, from Anniston to Alexander City and Auburn. This area — along with Southwest Alabama and the hill country in the Northeast and Northwest — is the least studied and valued part of the state.
Into this carefully established world of back roads, pulp-wooding, textile mills, tenant farming, fervent, charismatic, emotional religion, she introduces a cast of characters straight out of a captivating but troubling movie (think Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”). She adds a fascinating and essential brief history of the life insurance industry, which is the hinge to all the murders.
The alleged serial killer, Reverend Willie Maxwell, is a dapperly dressed preacher (even when cruising pine forests while his wood cutters pile pulp wood onto his truck, he wears a tie and coat), an appropriately differential Army veteran who knows how to manipulate black folks in the Baptist churches he pastors, white folks in a courtroom, and available women most anywhere.
Tom Radney, his attorney, represents Maxwell as he is investigated for four deaths, then wins acquittal for his assassin, who murdered Maxwell in front of 300 witnesses.
Harper Lee is the writer who intended to unravel this case of mysterious chemical substances which kill without leaving a trace and craft it into an epic book even better than “In Cold Blood,” which she had essentially co-authored with Capote though without attribution.
And this listing of stars does not even include cameo appearances by Capote, Tay Hohoff (Lee’s editor), or Maurice Crain (her equally talented agent) and a host of others.
If one of my Auburn doctoral students had presented me with such a prospectus for a dissertation — including so many places, characters and subplots — I would have summarily rejected the project as fanciful, implausible and impossible. No one could introduce into the narrative an entirely new and yet essential actor every few chapters and still maintain the coherence and focus of the work. Yet that is precisely what Cep manages to do.
Think of the most enthralling crime story you ever read. Add a brief biography of one of the best defense attorneys in state history who was also one of its last unapologetically liberal white Democrats. Fill in with a how-did-the -murderer-get-away-with-it plot. Then conclude by explaining why America’s most beloved author of a novel about coming-of-age-in-a-deeply-flawed-world decided to write a non-fiction/fiction masterpiece, meticulously researched the subject, completed as least a preliminary draft according to two sources I trust and then, for reasons about which we can only speculate, abandoned the project.
Of all the writers who have speculated, I believe that Cep comes closest to the truth: a combination of the fame of Lee’s first book, which became a world-wide classic (no place to go but down from there!); her personal insecurities (she grew up in the physically diminutive but intellectually gigantic shadow of Capote); and the strategic deaths of the two mentors who had made her believe in her talent, Hohoff and Crain, and who had disciplined, advised and helped her revise her fiction. Without their tutelage and literary midwifery, what might have been Lee’s greatest literary triumph remains sequestered in some safe deposit box, or forgotten on someone’s shelf who borrowed it while working on a dissertation about her.
My only criticism of this book is its title. Why “Furious Hours”? The book is not about hours or even a singular event; it is about time and place, murders and trials that lasted for years, and a portion of Alabama that requires long explanation even to the people who still live there, much less to readers from far-away places. But just ignore the title and plunge right into the book. I could not put it down.
And perhaps Cep’s initial book will be the beginning of a different, more confident, literary career for her than Harper Lee’s, and will fulfill the promise of this fine beginning.
Wayne Flynt is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Auburn University, and author of ‘Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee.’