When the kerfuffle over the impending release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman was cluttering up my news feeds in 2015, I confess that I didn't pay much attention.
Having not grown up in the United States, where Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is often required reading in children's education, I first read the classic when I was 20. It was part of a yearlong attempt of trying to catch up with what most of my college friends and professors considered canonical. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Casey Cep's new book, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.
I expected to be charmed by the writing; Cep writes regularly for The New Yorker, and her style is detailed and evocative, sometimes dramatic in a fun way, as when she wrote of Harper Lee that "only Jesus made his father more famous." As a relatively recent convert to the true-crime genre, I was hopeful that the book would deal responsibly with its subjects, and I wasn't let down there either. But what I didn't see coming was the emotional response I would have as I blazed through the last 20 pages of the book—yet there I was, weeping.
Furious Hours begins with a brief prologue that introduces its premise. In 1978, a largely unrecognized Nelle (pronounced Nell, not Nellie—apparently the reason she left the name off her famous book was frustration at the common mistake) Harper Lee sat in a courtroom in Alexander City, Ala., taking notes on the trial of Robert Burns, who was charged with killing the Rev. Willie Maxwell. Oddly, Tom Radney, the lawyer defending Burns—who everyone agreed did shoot Maxwell, as he did so at close range, inside a packed funeral home—had spent years defending Maxwell previously. Lee—who either never finished the book she wrote about the case or stashed a draft away somewhere that even the lawyer now handling her estate can't find it—took copious notes, interviewed as many people as would speak to her and began considering how she could tell the complicated story of these three men.
Briefly, the story is this: Maxwell, an African-American man living in Alabama, was accused of killing his first wife, Mary Lou, but was exonerated. He cashed in on her life insurance and, apparently, was hooked—several other people in his circle died over the next few years, including his next-door neighbor Abram Anderson, who was married at the time to the woman who soon became Maxwell's second wife, Dorcus; his brother, John Columbus Maxwell, known as J.C.; Dorcus herself; his nephew James Hicks; and his third (!) wife's adopted daughter, teenager Shirley Ann Ellington. There was never enough evidence to charge him with any of the deaths after his wife's; the copious numbers of life insurance policies he had taken out on each of them were considered circumstantial. But his community believed he was a killer, and rumors abounded that he was using voodoo to get away with it.