Author Casey Cep isn’t actually a Southerner, but a book like this one makes me inclined to forgive her for that fact.

Coming in May, Cep’s literary debut, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” is the story of the true crime novel Harper Lee never wrote.

In the 1970s, the Rev. Willie Maxwell lost five family members in a string of mysterious and unsolved murders in rural Alabama. Maxwell was a suspect in each case, but without the proper evidence, he was eventually released and allowed to pocket thousands of dollars in life insurance.

There’s nothing Southerners love more than a gossip, and it didn’t take long before locals began to talk. Some suspected the he was using voodoo, while others worried he had an accomplice.

 

In fact, the only people who seemed to think he was innocent were his lawyer Tom Radney and his second wife; his first wife was found strangled and beaten on the side of the road. People lived in fear of Maxwell for years, until one day, at the funeral of the latest victim, military veteran Robert Burns shot Maxwell point blank in front of hundreds of witnesses. In a twist worthy of southern gothic fiction, that savvy lawyer Radney decided to represent Burns in court, too.

All of this was taking place 10 years after native-Alabamian Harper Lee published “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The pressures of her initial fame had been replaced by the pressures of writing another equally adored book, and after meeting Radney at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Lee was lured by the chance to right a true crime novel of her own.

She moved back to Alabama, determined to transform the true narrative into a captivating look at race and justice in the South, but suffered a paralyzing stroke before she was able to complete it.

“Furious Hours” is Cep’s attempt to piece together a story that was almost forgotten. Her portrayal of Lee remains true to the little we were allowed to know about the author during her lifetime, while adding details about her upbringing, the long back and forth editing process of “Mockingbird,” and her desire to bring complex Southern characters to life. In the years after her debut novel, readers see Lee struggle with fame, taxes, gin and tonics, and most of all, with the heavy expectations placed on her writing.

Lee’s goal was to unearth the real story of Maxwell underneath the town’s voodoo theories and exaggerations, and like Lee, Cep loves facts. The research and context in this book are outstandingly thorough.

In fact, there’s almost an entire chapter devoted to the history of life insurance and fraud. But in this book, it is Cep’s characters who really shine: a murderous and greedy black reverend, the unassuming black vigilante hero, the slightly arrogant white lawyer who defended them both, and finally, a humble writer in search of the truth while battling her own demons. “Furious Hours” is sure to delight fans of Lee, fans of Southern gothic, and most of all, fans of a true and compelling story.

 

Ariel Felton received her B.F.A. in English from Valdosta State University and her M.F.A. in writing from SCAD. Her writing has been published in The Progressive, The Bitter Southerner, Scalawag, Under the Gum Tree, Savannah Magazine and more.