Casey Cep has picked up where Lee left off: She’s written the true-crime story that Harper Lee never figured out how to write ... It’s one measure of just how rich Casey Cep’s material is, and how artfully she handles it, that I have given away only about a tenth of the interest and delight contained within just the first third or so of her book. She reminded me all over again how much of good storytelling is leading the reader to want to know the things you are about to tell him, while still leaving him to feel that his interest was all his idea. By the time I got to the section on Harper Lee, I wanted to know more about her than I’ve ever thought I wanted to know ... Furious Hours builds and builds until it collides with the writer who saw the power of Maxwell’s story, but for some reason was unable to harness it. It lays bare the inner life of a woman who had a world-class gift for hiding ... it’s in her descriptions of another writer’s failure to write, that [Cep's] book makes a magical little leap, and it goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.
...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 ... Each section of the book could stand on its own, making it feel, in a way, like three books in one. But, ultimately, Furious Hours delivers a gripping, incredibly well-written portrait of not only Harper Lee, but also of mid-20th century Alabama—and a still-unanswered set of crimes to rival the serial killers made infamous in the same time period.
Cep’s book is a marvel. In elegant prose, she gives us the fullest story yet of Lee’s post-Mockingbird life in New York ... Cep’s is an account emotionally attuned to the toll that great writing takes, and shows that sometimes one perfect book is all we can ask for, even while we wish for another.
For book lovers, there is a thrill to discovering a great story populated by intriguing characters and unexpected dramatic twists. The thrill is compounded when that story fronts for a fascinating backstory that might even outshine the primary tale. And when the stars align perfectly, both stories are told by a fresh, authentic voice. In Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, author Casey Cep has hit the trifecta ... Furious Hours is a true gem and its author, Casey Cep, is the real McCoy.
... remarkable, thoroughly researched ... If you came to Furious Hours for a tell-all about Lee, prepare to be disappointed ... Even a reporter as meticulous as Cep can only do so much to pry loose facts that haven’t been widely circulated without crossing the litigious guardians of Lee’s estate. The Lee in her pages is the liveliest portrait we’re likely to get, barring the discovery of a memoir among her effects ... the center of Furious Hours is an absence of information, and the great, acrobatic trick Cep accomplishes is to deliver a book so richly detailed and full of thoughtfully condensed research without having access to any of its three main subjects ... Cep has a knack for a chapter-ending cliffhanger and building a sort of eerie tension ... Though her prose is sometimes weighed down by groaners, it is more often dexterous and animated. At her best, Cep manages the feat that all great nonfiction aspires to: combining the clean precision of fact with the urgency of gossip.
[Cep] bring[s] clarity and compassion to this double project: an examination of a writer’s lifelong struggle with writing matched with a determined dive into the true-crime story Lee ultimately abandoned ... a terrific read and a superbly researched, deeply sympathetic portrait of the author of one of America’s most beloved novels ... Cep’s compact, 130-page biography of the elusive author is a marvel of concision and clarity and the best part of Furious Hours. It is also one of the most compassionate portraits of writer’s block and what Cep calls 'unfinishedness' – the inability to complete a work — you’ll ever read.
Cep narrates this saga atmospherically and with empathy. There are lyrical passages. plus judicious detail ... Excursions into the annals of life insurance fraud and folkways of voodoo are fascinating. Though I wonder if she reckons sufficiently with Radney — an exhibit here of the insouciance toward 'black-on-black crime' she otherwise notes.
... fascinating ... Cep has spliced together a Southern-gothic tale of multiple murder with the unhappy story of Lee’s literary career, to produce a tale that is engrossing in its detail and deeply poignant ... Cep writes with great skill, sensitivity and attention to detail. The book does, however, suffer from three substantial problems, two of them, admittedly, not of Cep’s making. One is the frustrating secrecy that still surrounds Lee, which means most papers about her remain under lock and key. There is, too, the dying fall of Lee’s own life, which leads to the book ending on a frustratingly low-key note ... The third fault, however, is Cep’s own, and has to do with the structure of the book, as we are introduced first to Maxwell, then Radney (someone who should probably have taken a narrative back seat) and finally, more than halfway through the story, to Lee herself, each time being taken back to what feels like the beginning. That this doesn’t fatally upend the whole project has much to do with Cep’s other skills as a narrator, and the intense fascination of the subject she’s writing about.
... succeeds in telling the story that Nelle Harper Lee could not and offers an affecting account of Lee’s attempt to give meaning to a startling series of events ... To the potential disappointment of some readers, Furious Hours is not structured as a typical murder mystery or courtroom drama. But it’s a rich, ambitious, beautifully written book. A gifted journalist who has written frequently for the New Yorker, Cep has imposed order here by providing biographical portraits of three figures: Maxwell, Radney and Lee. Each section moves the intrigue forward while rendering the lives of these real people, and the forces at work within them, as fully and fairly as possible ... a revealing triptych, one that tells a crime story but also says a great deal about the racial, cultural and political history of the South ... the section on Lee is by itself worth the price of admission.
With zeal for research and a gift for linguistic precision, Cep delves into Alabama’s history, tells the striking stories of all involved in this macabre saga, and chronicles Lee’s extensive investigation, including attending Burns’ trial and speaking with Radney and others touched by the killings. Yet Lee could never bring her book to fruition. Cep has vividly and insightfully retrieved a grimly fascinating true-crime story and done Lee justice in a fresh and compelling portrait of this essential American writer.
... brilliant and gripping ... probably the nearest we will ever get to the book Harper Lee tried so hard to complete. It is a tacit tribute to Harper Lee but even more, an attempt, largely successful, to bring her abandoned project to final fruition ... a book of compelling portraits ... [Cep's] frequent asides on matters ranging from the construction of the huge Martin Dam to the predatory practices of “burial insurance” salesmen, from the vociferous rival claims of Baptists and Methodists to the arcana of voodoo, among many other recondite subjects, give us a sense of a region too often dismissed as an epitome of 'backwardness'. As Cep reveals in this painstakingly researched and beautifully written book, even backwardness may have its nuances, as provocative as they are puzzling.
It is to the credit of Casey Cep, a writer for The New Yorker and The New York Times, that she has pulled this extraordinary story together. Furious Hours is, in effect, three books ... It is not until halfway through the book that we get to Lee’s involvement with the Maxwell/Radney case, and the threads come together. This chronology seems risky, but the wait is worthwhile. With its rich cast of characters, the polar opposite settings of New York and rural Alabama, Cep’s dark humour and painstaking research, there is a great deal to enjoy. If I have one criticism, it is that dropping a detailed history of the life insurance industry on us in chapter three tests a reader’s commitment, but this was a minor hiccup in a rich and rewarding read.
... delightfully twisty and gives time to both fact and rumor, treating any viable piece of information with the respect it deserves ... a fascinating, if frustrating, read ...
It’s enough of a page-turner to whet any true-crime fan’s appetite, but ultimately unsatisfying in that neither the killer nor the author’s story comes to any conclusive ending. It’s hardly fair to place the blame for this squarely on Cep ... Despite raising more questions than it answers, this is truly an entertaining and educational book. Cep’s writing is visual and engaging, effortlessly transplanting her reader to any setting she evokes ... Occasionally, she gets a little caught up in admiration for her own sentences...but this propensity for grandiloquence rarely distracts from the story at large ... due to the difficulty of pulling together such an ambitious project, the reader is left wanting more ... I found myself spending a lot of time flipping back to earlier sections in attempts to recall important names and events that I had forgotten due to the book’s rigid, yet somehow disjointed, pacing ... Regardless, I really enjoyed the book and came away from it feeling like I learned something. In the days since I finished it, it has stayed with me, a testament to the resonance of the story Cep has told.
...an enthralling debut about crime, fact, and fiction ... Moral ambiguity is what binds the two narrative threads in Furious Hours: the first is a meticulously researched accounting of the case of Reverend Willie Maxwell ... Investigating Maxwell for herself, Cep comes up against all of the narrative problems that stymied Lee ... That moral complexity is exactly what appealed to Cep about investigating both lives — Maxwell’s and Lee’s ... we have the consolation of knowing that while Harper Lee is done writing, Casey Cep is just starting out.
[Cep is] a thorough researcher and polsihed writer ... Harper Lee fans may find themselves impatient to read about her, as she doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the book, but they’ll be rewarded for the wait. While the myriad mysteries about Lee’s life seem unlikely to ever be resolved, Furious Hours offers an absorbing glimpse into the gifted but guarded life of this enigmatic literary hero.
Casey Cep rarely meets a character whose biography she's disinclined to write. In fact, her penchant for delving into back stories extends to sociohistorical phenomena ... this renders the narrative rather unwieldy even as it attests to its (first-time) author's versatility. Nevertheless, Furious Hours is never boring, and proves positively entrancing ... we have Cep to thank for tracing, in Furious Hours, the celebrated author's winding road to defeat.
Casey Cep's fascinating Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is a carefully researched and lyrically composed story about Lee's intention to write a nonfiction book recounting a string of killings in rural Alabama in the 1970s ... Cep surveys obstacles that included loneliness, depression, episodes of heavy drinking and the deaths of Lee's invaluable "Mockingbird" editors. There was confusion about the ideal protagonist in the Maxwell murder story ... Cep surveys obstacles that included loneliness, depression, episodes of heavy drinking and the deaths of Lee's invaluable Mockingbird editors. There was confusion about the ideal protagonist in the Maxwell murder story ... Though an absence is at the center of Furious Hours, the book never feels insubstantial. Cep likes detours, which well suits this kind of book ... This is Cep's first book. Let's hope it's not her last.
a well-told, ingeniously structured double mystery—one an unsolved serial killing, the other an elusive book—rich in droll humour and deep but lightly worn research. If at the final page it seems curiously unsatisfying, that is because readers and writers both long for resolution—and Harper Lee’s story, like that of her proposed subject, stubbornly resists a neat ending.
...[a] stunning first book ... This immersive and precise look at a 1977 Alabama murder and the reclusive writer who almost penned a book about it doesn't devote even one of its three sections to Robert Burns, the man at the heart of the titular trial...then to author Harper Lee ... Thoroughness may not, at first glance, seem like the sexiest trait, but throughout her debut, Cep's intellectual curiosity is infectious. Under her guidance, tracing the history of life insurance from the Great Fire of London to the U.S. in the 1970s doesn't just seem necessary to understanding why and how Maxwell may have bumped off his family members, but also deeply, genuinely fun. There's something egalitarian in the way Cep dispenses information, something joyful in the way she executes deep dives, and always with a keen eye for how the weight of history acts on her subjects and her audience ... Cep has no simple solution to offer us, but her rich look at a moment in the criminal justice system of the American South, Lee's complicated life, and a frank wrestling with the work of writing is just as satisfying.
Cep, a fiercely smart and generous writer, takes up the Maxwell story and follows it into the deeper mysteries of Harper Lee ... Cep’s a reporter, historian, and philosopher. And a very good writer. She has a marvelous ability to conjure worlds out of words and the patience to trace an Alabama landscape transformed by a dam, to follow a black soldier home from World War II, into his work in the mills and out onto the pulpits of country revivals ... On page after page, Cep brings a remarkable imagination to the work of solving the problems Furious Hours raises. It’s fascinating to watch her muscle together two very different stories—the story of Maxwell and his murderous ways and the story of Lee and her literary frustrations. The book is a tribute to Lee but it is also a record of Cep’s wide reading and wonderfully encyclopedic knowledge ... I’ll give her credit: she’s transformed a world into words and made her blank pages into an unusually smart book.
Casey Cep’s Furious Hours fills in the gap of Lee’s post-Mockingbird career with insatiable curiosity and impressive research. It reveals not just her intellectual interests, but within them, her personal relationships and motivations. Cep seeks to immerse us in Lee’s obsessions, her inner life. This profoundly ambitious goal, approached innovatively and at times ingeniously, isn’t quite reached, but the effort is admirable ... Cep’s second chapter is particularly chilling, detailing the initial shock to follow Maxwell’s first murder—of his then-wife—in 1970, and how he evaded arrest ... Cep thrives in specifics. Maxwell’s rise and fall is intriguing enough, but the author vividly embraces his story’s true-crime aesthetic, drowning it in sticky Southern atmosphere ... This does not make a whole book, however; Lee hovers over the first section of Furious Hours as an unmentioned, invisible figure, before gradually slotting herself into the world ... The problem, as other critics have discussed, is that rather than feeling holistic, Furious Hours introduces three compelling but unfinished strands of a larger narrative ... Cep seductively keys the reader in to Lee’s processes by reflecting on the holes, inconsistencies, and challenges of reporting out Maxwell’s killings and death. In that sense, there’s a stirring poetry to Furious Hours that eludes most contemporary nonfiction ... Furious Hours uniquely, frustratingly confronts a long-incomplete story by telling an incomplete story of its own.
Casey Cep has published excellent pieces in the New Yorker on Lee’s post-Mockingbird(and posthumous) career. She outlined the Maxwell/Burns story in a 2015 article, and Furious Hours is that story fleshed out. Padded out too, it must be said. The book lacks the incisiveness of Cep’s articles and suffers from what seems an anxiety about some of the unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions it raises; it flings up quantities of data-dust about marginally relevant subjects as if in the hope of concealing its more significant gaps ... The book never quite resolves the problem of its related but separate subjects (as witnessed by its laborious subtitle), and wobbles tonally between academic dryness and a more down-home style...as if fitfully trying to channel Lee at her folksiest ... But it’s fascinating all the same, and in spite of all the extraneous material Cep puts forward a persuasive set of conjectures about this key passage in Lee’s long and eloquent silence.
There is an earnestness in Cep’s telling, a fact-checked stasis. You get a history of the insurance industry. You get a history of voodoo. On the death of Mary Lou we detour to the Scottsboro boys and the founding of the Alabama bureau of forensics, but you get the feeling that the real histories are just out of reach, undocumented in the savage reaches of the secessionist south ...There’s a tendency here to think the best of people, a mannerly distance in the prose which doesn’t quite nail Radney, whose courtroom is a place of gamesmanship and procedural browbeating rather than the elegant gavotte of morals you find in Mockingbird ... Cep writes beautifully when she steps away from what feels like mid-Manhatten house style ... You find yourself wanting more of this, you want to get closer to Willie Maxwell’s dark heart. But you are up against the undocumented, oral histories, everything sealed in the hermetics of race politics, fear and suspicion.
... essentially two books—a thriller and a biography—that Ms. Cep stitches into an intriguing and occasionally gripping whole. The only problem is that the enigma of Harper Lee is far more fascinating than the criminal trial she ultimately abandoned ... for a true-crime tale, it is awkwardly devoid of suspense ... Ms. Cep pads this story with thoughtful digressions on Alabama’s politics and full profiles of Maxwell and Radney, but she strangely makes no mention of Lee until halfway through the book. When Harper Lee finally does arrive, it is a relief. Ms. Cep’s brisk and lively account of the woman’s life offers few surprises, but it is engrossing all the same.
Casey Cep’s oddly titled Furious Hours amounts to two different books. In one, she reports — as best she can, given limited sources — the story of that dispiriting struggle. But she also tells, with great verve, the fascinating true-crime story that Lee failed to complete ... The author ably sifts through the evidence for Maxwell’s crimes and explains the sometimes arcane mores of the Deep South. Ever eager to provide context, however, she tends to plunge into narrative black holes.
In this effortlessly immersive narrative, Cep engagingly traces how Lee found the case and began—and ultimately abandoned—a project she called The Reverend. Cep writes with the accessible erudition of podcast-style journalism; she breathes not only life, but style into her exhaustive, impressively researched narrative. She relies heavily on the backstories of each of her narrative threads, which transforms her book into a collection of connected preambles ... This kind of storytelling may feel disjointed, but there’s a reason for it: By fully detailing the crimes before Lee even appears, Cep allows readers to see the case through Lee’s eyes and recognize its nascent literary potential. Above all, this is a book about inspiration and how a passion for the mysteries of humanity can cause an undeniable creative spark ... A well-tempered blend of true crime and literary lore.