Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
by Casey Cep
Reverend. This title makes us think of gold letters embossed on the cover of the preacher’s black leather King James Bible. Rarely do we expect a reverend to be called by another, more menacing title – serial killer. Yet that is exactly what we get in the story of Alabama serial killer Rev. Willie Maxwell. Between 1970 and 1977, Maxwell was accused of murdering five people – two of his wives, his brother, his neighbor (the first husband of wife number two), and the teenage daughter of his third wife.
Any evidence? Not exactly. What about motive? That answer is simple. Insurance money. Each of the victims had multiple life insurance policies purchased by Willie Maxwell. Would you care to take a guess who the benefactor was? That’s right. Willie Maxwell. With the help of a slick lawyer named Tom Radney, Maxwell escaped justice in the courts for years. Where law and order failed, vigilante justice succeeded. At the funeral of Maxwell’s stepdaughter, Shirley Ellington, the Reverend was shot three times in a church full of witnesses. Robert Burns, the uncle of Ellington, would now be on trial for murder.
The only defense you have when 300 people see you shoot someone is to plead insanity. That is exactly what Tom Radney, former attorney of Willie Maxwell, would try to prove. Against all odds, Burns was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. The story of the Rev. Willie Maxwell and the court case involving Tom Radney and Robert Burns fascinated the state of Alabama, but most importantly, one of Alabama’s most famous authors, Harper Lee.
Lee is best known for her book To Kill a Mockingbird, but she spent the majority of her life searching for answers and working on a book about the events described above. The book was never published, and even though people claim to have read parts of it, there is no evidence that it exists. It seems that Lee could not figure how to write the story of the Rev. Willie Maxwell and the man acquitted for Maxwell’s murder, Robert Burns.
My thoughts: Furious Hours contains three stories. While I see how all of them are interconnected, I found myself scratching my head at certain times during the story. The story of Willie Maxwell and Robert Burns was enough to keep me interested, but Cep also includes information about Harper Lee’s early life, her struggles with writing after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, her relationship with Truman Capote, and her journey to gather information about Maxwell and Burns. In my opinion, the story starts out strong, but at the entrance of Lee, it seems like the story of Maxwell and Burns falls by the wayside. This is not a terrible book, but I question the inclusion of some of Lee’s biographical information.
Ricky Statham is director at Oneonta Public Library. Visit the library Monday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., to check out this or another great book.
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