A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Thursday, August 8, 2019

TRUE CRIME THURSDAY- Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep- Feature and Review


The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted–thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more working on her own version of the case.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South.



\ Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper LeeFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep is a 2019 Random House publication.

The case involving the Reverend Willie Maxwell is one I was completely unfamiliar with. I never heard of him, or Robert Burns or their attorney, Tom Radney- until I picked up this book. As this was all unchartered territory for me, I found the case riveting. I could hardly believe what I was reading. The ease in which Maxwell purchased life insurance policies, not just for relatives, but for neighbors too, is staggering. That he got away with murder, time and time again, is astounding. But his luck finally ran out, when he was shot to death, at a funeral, in front of a slew of witnesses, by Robert Burns, a relative of one of Maxwell’s many victims.

Ironically, Burns would be defended by the same attorney that defended Maxwell- Tom Radney. It is also interesting to discover that famed author, Harper Lee, was once seriously considering writing a true crime story based on this case and went so far as to attend Burns’ trial, doing a little legwork, and even conducted a few interviews with those closely associated with the case.

Obviously, no book about the reverend Willie Maxwell ever surfaced.

Divided into three segments, the first of which tells how easily Willie Maxwell purchased life insurance policies, naming himself the beneficiary, then murdered the insured person and collected the money. He was a preacher in the more traditional way, but was rumored to practice voodoo, as well. This is a truly strange story and I was horrified by it. Then came the story of Robert Burns which is also compelling. The trial parts are good, and the way it all turned out is fascinating.

The second segment is centered around the attorney, Tom Radney, who defended both Maxwell and Burns. Radney was a central figure in both cases, and even had a hand in helping Lee with her research, probably hoping to find himself prominently featured in her book. I understand why the author spent a little time detailing the man’s career and life, but this part was a too extensive, and a bit boring.

The third part of the book is mostly a short biography of Harper Lee. There was nothing in this bio that I had not heard before and has nothing whatsoever to do with this case. The only thing I didn’t know is that she had followed this case, started a manuscript for a book about it, at some point, but it never came to fruition.

A book about this case, fully fleshed out, with a chapter about Tom Radney and the bit about Harper Lee, tossed in as an interesting piece of trivia, would have been good all on its own. Yet, somebody, somewhere, decided to market the book using Harper Lee’s name to generate interest and boost sales. I’d label that as exploitation, to be honest, but that’s just me.

I had mixed feelings about the book, as I think the title is misleading and Lee’s connection to the story is nothing more than an interesting aside, in my humble opinion, which was a major turn off and even angered me a little. However, it looks like I’m in the minority on this one.

That said, the criminal case is compelling and I’m glad I read this book for that reason. I’m not sure how to rate this one due to my mixed feelings about it. Although, I’m still conflicted, I’m going to go with 3 stars for this one.






Casey Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her first book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee was an instant New York Times bestseller, and comes recommended by David Grann, Helen Macdonald, and Michael Lewis. Cep graduated from Harvard College, then earned an M.Phil. at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe New York Times, and The New Republic, among many other publications.

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