By Casey Cep
Most people know Harper Lee as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Thanks to movies such as “Capote”(2005) and “Infamous” (2006), people also know that in 1959 Lee worked as Truman Capote’s assistant as he researched the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, KS, for his book IN COLD BLOOD.
Fewer people know that nearly 15 years after IN COLD BLOOD, Lee began research on a true crime story of her own.
In FURIOUS HOURS, author Casey Cep has written a murder mystery, a literary mystery and a fascinating biography of the reclusive Lee.
The crime that caught Lee’s attention was the shooting of the Rev. Willie Maxwell at a funeral outside Alexander City, AL, in 1977. The funeral was that of Maxwell’s 16-year-old stepdaughter, Shirley Ann Ellington. Many attending the funeral believed that Maxwell had murdered the girl. Suddenly, one of the girl’s brothers pointed a gun at Maxwell from the pew ahead of him and fired three shots at Maxwell’s head.
The shooter, Robert Burns, stayed inside the chapel waiting for police and confessed the killing on the way to the police station.
Maxwell himself was associated with — but never convicted of — the deaths of two wives, a nephew, a neighbor and his stepdaughter. All of the deaths were suspicious, but at least one was so mysterious that medical examiners couldn’t determine the cause of death. One thing all the victims shared was that Maxwell had taken out life insurance policies on them and was getting big payouts.
Lee, who had grown up a few counties away, decided this would make a good book. She left her Manhattan apartment, set up residence in Alexander City, attended Burns’ trial, read Maxwell’s trial transcripts, studied police reports, insurance applications and claim forms and newspaper clippings. She told friends about her work and hobnobbed with local reporters, attorneys and cops.
(Burns was acquitted by reasons of insanity — and ironically defended by the attorney who had defended Maxwell in his one murder trial and several trials where insurance companies refused to pay out on his policies.)
But the years passed and no book appeared.
Cep has done a wonderful job of looking at Lee’s life as a writer and ferreting out what happened to this last project. Unlike Capote, who started as a copy boy at The New Yorker and then became a staff writer, Lee never even had a creative writing course. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was written after friends gave her enough money to take a year off work to write. They also introduced her to an agent. He and Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff worked with Lee to create a publishable book.
Lee was a perfectionist. She had been appalled by the license that Capote had taken in writing IN COLD BLOOD. She wanted to write a factual piece of journalism that was as much of a page turner as a mystery novel.
Cep has taken a complex story involving multiple people and made it accessible. It’s a fascinating story in all of its aspects.
About the Author: Casey Cep
Casey Cep is an author and journalist. She is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic and other publications. FURIOUS HOURS is her first nonfiction book.
The book debuted at No. 6 on The New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Sellers List. It won the 2020 ALCS Gold Dagger for NonFiction and was shortlisted for the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize. President Barack Obama selected it as one of his favorite books of 2019.