“Furious Hours:” A New Book About Harper Lee

by John Delach

I recently finished an excellent but curious book about Harper Lee written by Casey Cep, a young, gifted writer. Ms Cep traveled to Alabama as a reporter for The New Yorker to write about Go Set A Watchman, Ms Lee’s sequel / prequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, published shortly before Lee’s death. While researching her subject, Cep uncovered evidence of another unpublished Harper Lee endeavor, a true crime story shrouded in mystery.

Curiously, I also discovered that Ms Cep too is shrouded in mystery. This brief bio appears on the jacket of her book: “Casey Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in English, she earned an M.Phil in theology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The New Republic, among other publication. Furious Hours id her first book.”

Another source noted that Ms Cep went on to earn a graduate degree in Divinity from Yale.

Beyond that Cep is a mystery. Her age is elusive and her identity; curious. The color photo of her inside the jacket of her book is the same as others I have found. Dark flowing hair, brushed to the left side of her face, she wears a black top with no discernable make-up or jewelry. She looks directly at the camera, tight lipped with eyes locked in a Clint Eastwood look that says to any and all intruders: “Make my day.”

Furious Hours is in many ways a biography of Harper Lee though Ms Cep doesn’t approach the story from that direction. Cep, instead takes the reader into the story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, a black rural Alabaman preacher believed to have murdered five family members, all to collect life insurance money. Set in the 1970s, Maxwell eludes justice thanks to a local, savvy white lawyer who also profits from the reverend’s insurance proceeds. Finally, a cousin of his last victim takes revenge on the reverend at the victim’s wake by shooting three bullets into Reverend Brown’s face. Ironically, the same attorney who conspired with the reverend gets the murderer off on a plea of insanity.

I kid you not but take a breath to absorb all that before we continue.

Okay, if that is not enough, the murderer is found innocent by reason of insanity, remanded to the state’s mental hospital, where he is released three months later as a free man.

My purpose is not to review the book or to delve into the secrets Ms Cep uncovered about Ms Lee’s abortive decision to write this true crime story or how and why she abandoned her quest after ten or more years of research and work. Cep covers that waterfront in depth. She may not unearth all the bodies, but she uncovers many of them. Don’t expect to discover the essence of Ellie Harper Lee, but Cep opens several important and previously unknown or locked doors.

It’s the title: Furious Hours, that I found fascinating and confusing: “What furious hours?”

The sub-title is somewhat more palpable: “Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.”

Murder and fraud, I get, but last trial of Harper Lee? Hyperbole at best and unnecessary but I presume it helps to sell books.

However, the title, Furious Hours, doesn’t seem to make sense. The book spans thirty or more years and the phrase is not mentioned until Page 252 less than 20 pages from its end. Most of the book is centered around the town of Alexander City in eastern Alabama.

Cep does tell us that Nelle Harper Lee and her oldest sister, Alice, were enamored by Albert James Pickett’s History of Alabama, first published in 1851, especially the passages detailing the lives and fates of the indigenous tribes belonging to the Creek Nation who once lived in that part of the south.

Ms Cep writes: “Pickett’s history does not continue past statehood’… (1819.)  “(Harper) Lee had a theory about why Pickett had stopped writing. ‘I do not believe that it was in him,’ she said, ‘to write about the fate of the Creek Nation, of the Cherokees, of the Chickasaws and Choctaws, which was decided within his own lifetime.’ Instead his narrative concluded with the ‘engagements’ between Andrew Jackson’s army and the Creeks which Lee said, ‘began to spell the end, which came as we all know, in a few furious hours at Horseshoe Bend.’ Then Lee said something more revealing…: ‘I think Pickett left his heart at Horseshoe Bend.”

More than 800 Creek warriors were killed in six hours of fighting at the battle of Horseshoe Bend. I believe those were Ms Cep’s furious hours.

Ms Cep continues: “If so, he wasn’t the only one who left some crucial part of himself in Tallapoosa County. Lee left something there too – if not her heart, then perhaps her nerve.”

I believe Casey Cep Has constructed a premise that for whatever reason, Ellie Harper Lee lost the courage to write this crime story because, like the outgunned Creeks, she finally reached a realization that she couldn’t write this book. The essence and substance of the plot were exclusively the property of the African-American community of Alexander City. Individually and collectively, these people had been deprived, de-valued and debased by the white community, justice system and press.

There wasn’t any record of the circumstances surrounding these killings in court records or newspapers. They weren’t considered newsworthy so the only insights into the story were locked into the oral folk-lore of the black community. Harper Lee knew that her sources for her book were locked into this community alien to her as if it was on Mars. She finally conceded that a bridge did not exist for her to cross that divide between her part of the Jim Crow south and their’s. 

I do recommend Ms Cep’s book, but like Elle Harper Lee, it appears that Casey Cep may have her own dark closets.