Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book in Focus: Furious Hours, by Casey Cep (event at Boswell Thu Aug 1, 2 pm)

Another week, another book that came to my attention at Winter Institute in Albuquerque. One evening I went to a party that was jointly put on by Penguin Random House and Grove Atlantic. It was quite the gathering.

We had just hosted Madhuri Vijay for her debut, The Far Afield, so it was nice running into her. We had just co-hosted a great event for her at the Shorewood Public Library, with the help of the Lawrence alumni group. I was still sort of thrilled for that.

Several booksellers were gathered around Ruth Reichl (at left, below), whose memoir Save Me the Plums, was coming out in April. I had already read it and loved it, but there was a lot of competition for her attention, and after my pilgrimage was done, I moved on - there was certainly no shortage of booksellers to take my place.

I got to speak to Ocean Vuong, who was being touted for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. Their touting paid off - the book has been one of our big books of the summer and I can only imagine how well it's going to do come awards-and-best-of-the-year season. Otherwise known as the fourth quarter.

One author I did not get to speak with was Casey Cep, though I really enjoyed hearing her talk about her new book. Smart true crime books are having a resurgence, partly due to the explosion of crime podcasts, and there's always interest in anything about Harper Lee. I left that dinner genuinely excited for Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.

An aside: I was chatting about our true crime events (we're also hosting Billy Jensen on August 16 for Chase Darkness with Me) with someone at a meeting, and she told me that her daughter was one of those folks who have become obsessed with Stay Sexy and Don't Get Murdered. At their recent stop in Milwaukee, they talked about the Lawrencia Bembenek and her daughter texted her, excited that her mother had worked at Tracks, the bar that figures prominently in the story. How's that fact for jump-starting a mother-daughter relationship?

While Lee obsessives know some of this story, many of us do not. Here are the facts. After Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird but before it was published, Nelle accompanied childhood friend Truman Capote on his research trips to Kansas for what would become In Cold Blood. She wound up doing a lot of the organization for the book.

After To Kill a Mockingbird was published and became a huge hit, she struggled to follow it up. Perhaps the case of Reverend Willie Maxwell would be just the thing. While Maxwell was never convicted, he was curiously at the center of several deaths of family members and one neighbor. In all but the case of the neighbor, Maxwell had taken out multiple insurance policies on the victims. And then, at the funeral of one of the victims, he was shot dead by another relative. And on top of that, the lawyer who defended the victim went on to defend the killer - who shot him was never in doubt, as there were many witnesses.

The story becomes three profiles of three enigmatic personalities - Lee, Maxwell, and Big Tom Radney, a progressive lawyer (he was a huge fan of JFK) in a very conservative state. This was hardly an easy position to take in the Deep South - he was eased out of his earlier political career by death threats.

The story, then is a triptych - one might call it a triptych of failure, to pick up on Casey Cep's still resonating elevator pitch. Nobody in the story could exactly claim success: Willie Maxwell's deadly scam (if there was one) was cut short; Tom Radney might have one his cases, but they were hardly solved; and Harper Lee didn't write the book. Like David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon (he calls this book "a triumph on every level," by the way), Furious Hours also works as a work of history, whether Cep is chronicling life insurance, mid-century publishing, or the culture of Alabama. It's hard to remember that it wasn't that long ago that there were apartments in Manhattan without hot water. You wouldn't have the term "hot water flat" if the heat was standard, right?

When Lee's sister Alice died and her new attorney, Tonja Carter, discovered the heretofore unpublished manuscript in a safe deposit box and said it would be published with the author's blessing, many thought it might actually be this true crime book, and not what turned out to be Go Set a Watchman. But aside from some notes, there's nothing really to publish, just the story about the book that is Furious Hours. 

Critics have been very kind. Michael Lewis called Furious Hours "the sort of story that even Lee would be proud to write" in The New York Times Book Review. And here's Ilana Masad on NPR's website: "As a relatively recent convert to the true-crime genre, I was hopeful that the book would deal responsibly with its subjects, and I wasn't let down there either. But what I didn't see coming was the emotional response I would have as I blazed through the last 20 pages of the book - yet there I was, weeping."

While we did not get on the initial tour, Cep planned out a summer road that included a Wisconsin leg. She'll be appearing at Prairie Lights on July 30, Room of One's Own on the 31st, and Book Stall on August 1, all in the evening. We suggested she stop by August 1 in the afternoon - 2 pm, to be precise. Publishers are hesitant about these weekday afternoon events, but we have an awful lot of retirees and other customers who like to do things during the day. And this is only the beginning of the tour - Cep is going everywhere! Here's the full schedule.

I so enjoyed Cep's talk in New Mexico and I'm thrilled that many of you will get to hear more from this talented author. For those of you who take part in Osher programs, imagine this as a bonus session - you can learn a lot. And for all of you who ask for more daytime events, you'll give me the proof to ask for more if you come to the ones we have!

photo credit: Kathryn Schulz

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