Furious Hours Summary & Study Guide

Casey Cep
This Study Guide consists of approximately 63 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Furious Hours.
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Furious Hours Summary & Study Guide Description

Furious Hours Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on Furious Hours by Casey Cep.

The following version of this book was used to create the guide: Cep, Casey. Furious Hours. Knopf, 2019.

In opening Furious Hours, Cep ruminates on the history of the Tallapoosa River. She talks about the childhood of Reverend Willie Maxwell, and details his life up to meeting his wife, Mary Lou Edwards. At the beginning of Chapter Two, Cep describes the day that Mary Lou was found dead. Although Maxwell told a story about Mary Lou not being home, law officials remained skeptical. When the police discovered Mary Lou’s car, they determined that she had been beaten to death. As Maxwell tried to collect on insurance policies for his wife, Mary Lou’s death had been declared a homicide, and he was indicted for her murder.

After discussing the lengthy history of the life insurance industry, Cep talks about how fraud and corruption in the industry was rampant. When Mary Lou died, the Reverend experienced a lot of resistance from companies when he tried to collect on the policies. Tom Radney, Maxwell’s lawyer, filed civil suits against the companies that refused to pay Maxwell, and in 1971, a grand jury indicted the Reverend for the murder of his wife. Maxwell was acquitted, however, because his neighbor, Dorcas Anderson, provided him an alibi. Ironically, the Reverend was eventually remarried to Dorcas. Around this time, rumors of voodoo began to spread about Maxwell.

Just Plain Scared opens with the death of the Reverend’s brother, J.C. Once again, Maxwell collected on his life insurance policies. Eight months after J.C.’s death, Dorcas Maxwell was found dead alongside Highway 9, but doctors found that she died of natural causes. Insurance companies really started to resist Maxwell, but Radney continued to fight for payment on the policies, all centered around the cause of death, eventually winning collection on the policies. For his entire life, the Reverend “insisted that he was innocent” (63). In 1974, Maxwell was remarried to Ophelia Burns, who was indicted for the first murder of Mary Lou.

In 1976, Maxwell’s nephew, James Hicks, was found dead along Route 9. People started coming forward with information about Maxwell, saying that he asked them “how dirty” they were and for help in the murder. Soon after, his stepdaughter Shirley was also found dead along Highway 9. At her memorial, Robert Burns shot the Reverend.

The next part of Furious Hours focuses on Tom Radney, the lawyer for Maxwell and Burns. Tom’s parents taught him “lessons in human decency” (83). After winning a seat as a state senator, Tom was excited to show his support for the Kennedys, making himself the “ambassador of the New South” (90). This provoked many southerners who started threatening Radney and his family. Eventually, Tom decided to leave politics and pursue law. Setting up an office next to the Alexander City Courthouse, Radney practiced with the strong belief that everyone deserved a lawyer. Everyone liked Tom; even officers who fought cases with him “forgave him” whenever a friend or relative needed help (109).

After the Reverend was killed, Tom took on Robert Burns as a client, pursuing not guilty by reason of insanity. Pitted against Thomas Young, Radney focused the trial on two main components: “voodoo and Vietnam” (118). Both Tom’s were quite volatile during the trial, constantly yelling objections. Alphonso Murphy offered damning evidence against the Reverend who apparently tried to hire him to kill Shirley. The trial essentially turned on the concept of the “righteous vigilante,” and in the end, Radney won (134).

In the final section of Furious Hours, Cep introduces Nelle Harper Lee. She was born in 1926 in Monroeville, and her father owned a law firm in town. Her best friend was Truman Streckfus Persons, later known as Truman Capote. In college, she transferred to the University of Alabama, and found a home at the Union, the building that housed the student publications. Lee went to law school, but dropped out “six weeks shy of graduation,” deciding to fully commit to writing (164).

When Nelle moved to Manhattan, Truman arranged for his friend, Michael Brown, to look after her. While in New York, Nelle lost both her mother and her brother. While she struggled to write, Lee also struggled to make ends meet. Brown encouraged her to see a literary agent, and when Maurice Crain expressed interest in her writing a longer piece, the Browns offered her a check with a note, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please” (173). Nelle quit her day job and wrote what eventually turned into To Kill a Mockingbird.

When Capote went out to Kansas to write about the Clutter murders he brought along Harper Lee as his “assistant researchist” (180). Lee’s help eventually went towards Truman’s publication of In Cold Blood. After publishing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee grew to hate both the taxes and publicity that came with it. Throughout her life, Lee struggled with writing, and in 1964 she embarked on a 50 year silence, refusing to do any interviews. Lee’s New York started to change, Crain died, and his wife closed down their office. By May 1977, “everyone who had helped bring To Kill a Mockingbird into the world was gone” (207). Lee showed signs of a drinking problem and people just stopped talking about her writing. Around this time, Lee met Tom Radney who told her about the life of the Reverend.

Lee hoped to find facts when researching the life of Maxwell, but was startled by the amount of rumors and lies she was given by people while staying in the Horseshoe Bend Motel. Tom gave Lee a large, leather briefcase with all of his files on Maxwell. Lee also found help from Jim Earnhardt, a reporter who was there the day the Reverend was shot. He gave Lee a lot of information and the two became very close. Lee also interviewed Ophelia Maxwell and Robert Burns. When she returned to New York, she tried to unpack the Maxwell case, but ran into trouble with writing the story, finding that “facts were in short supply” (242).

Writing the book, Lee struggled with both her writing and her drinking problem. In 1984, Truman Capote died in Los Angeles, and Lee attended a memorial service in New York. People began to talk about Lee’s unfinished book, and she was approached about the material she had written. Although Lee eventually gave up on writing The Reverend, she did not stop writing through many letters. It is unclear why Lee did not publish anything or was unable to write. Near the end of her life, she came out of hiding to accept accolades for her writing, something that Cep claimed, “seemed to mark a new willingness to acknowledge that she had written a masterpiece” (264).

In March 2007, Lee suffered a serious stroke, and ended up paralyzed on her left side. In 2009, her sister Louise died, and in 2014, her sister Alice passed away. Soon after this, it was announced that Harper Lee would be publishing another book. Many people believed that this was the infamous The Reverend, but it turned out to be Go Set a Watchman.

In 2016, Lee died, and Cep includes directions on how to find her gravestone, along with those of the Reverend Maxwell and Tom Radney.

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