Harper Lee spent years working on a true crime book—Casey Cep's 'Furious Hours' tells the tale.

Donald Uhrbrock/Contributor

To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in the South, and it has been since its publication in 1960. Its author, Nelle Harper Lee, is rather less well known, but a new book aims to shed light on the writer whose few works—the classic Mockingbird and, more recently, the contentious Go Set a Watchman—have claimed their places in the country’s vast literary landscape.

History remembers Harper Lee as a famously reclusive writer, one who shunned interviews, resented the spotlight, and opted out of the trappings of fame that accompany a once-in-a-century debut like To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s life, private as it was, went on after that debut, and the author soon became entangled in a true crime story she struggled for decades to write. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee tells that story.

Courtesy of Knopf

Written by Casey Cep, who hails from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Furious Hours examines Lee’s life and the complicated courtroom drama that brought her to Alexander City, Alabama, in the 1970s. The book is told in three parts. The first focuses on a series of murders, all of which sent sent shivers through the small Alabama communities in which they took place. The crimes are many: Reverend Willie Maxwell was accused of murdering five family members and acquaintances in order to collect payouts from the life insurance policies he’d taken out on them. In court, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, an Alabama politician, local attorney, and the focus of the second part of Furious Hours. Radney also represented Tom Burns, the man who shot and killed Maxwell at the funeral of Maxwell’s alleged last victim.

Furious Hours is a compelling hybrid of a novel, at once a true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and miniature biography of Harper Lee. The final section of the book traces Lee’s life, including the years she spent writing To Kill a Mockingbird in New York City and helping Truman Capote research In Cold Blood in Kansas, and it explores how she ended up in that Alexander City courtroom watching Burns’ murder trial play out. Lee struggled to turn the case into a book, which is rumored to be called The Reverend, though the work has remained unpublished and unseen for decades.

Cep spoke with Southern Living about what drew her to Lee, to Alabama, and to this decades-old literary mystery. Cep, a longtime fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, says, "I came to this story through Harper Lee. I’ve always loved her work, and I was interested in her life." When Cep heard about Lee’s unfinished manuscript, she got to work. Her research sent her deep into the author’s archives and into interviews with friends and neighbors who knew Lee and her family. Taken together, the details Cep unearthed create a fuller portrait of a writer many readers may think they already know.

As for Lee’s reputation for being reclusive, Cep says, "I think one of the more shocking things for me in the course of reporting this book was realizing that Lee wasn’t necessarily anti-social or reclusive. The people she interviewed in Alex City and the people who lived in her building in New York couldn’t stop talking about how friendly, gregarious, and funny she was. I’m grateful that they shared some of those stories and that they could be included in the book, because it brings her to life."

Furious Hours is a page-turner that’s also broadly and deeply researched. It does bring Harper Lee to life, and it's also filled with forays into such varied topics as mid-20th-century Alabama politics, insurance fraud, and the creation of Alabama’s Lake Martin, all of which paint a picture of the place and time that shaped Lee and spurred the courtroom case that she grappled with for years.

Cep hopes readers take away from the book a broader perspective of Lee’s life. She says, "For Harper Lee, life didn’t end after To Kill a Mockingbird. She was still ambitious, productive, and active in the world. When they finish the book, I hope that people feel like they get to know her a little more and understand that she was more than just her writing—and certainly more than just the book that made her famous."

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is available from local independent bookstores, and you can find one near you via Indiebound. Furious Hours is also available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and local libraries.

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If To Kill a Mockingbird was one of your favorite books growing up, you should add Furious Hours to your reading list today.

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