As evidenced by its extended title Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is really three interrelated stories. The first, and impetus for the rest, is the murky tale of a murky man, the Reverend Willie Maxwell, an itinerant preacher and laborer whose immediate family members had the unfortunate habit of dying under mysterious circumstances. Whether the Reverend was unlucky or not depends on your perspective, because it always turned out that said family members were insured to the hilt, with the beneficiary being, unsurprisingly, the Reverend himself. He was found innocent the only time he was tried for his losses, and eventually (no spoiler here, it’s on the jacket copy) shot in church during the funeral of one of his alleged victims.
The legendary figure of the trickster has been part of English and American literature from the beginning. Ever since works like Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Melville’s The Confidence Man, readers have been perennially fascinated by tales of the pompous and privileged being made fools of by the humble and underprivileged, the overeducated dunce capped by the wisdom of the streets. And I’m here to tell you that modern times are no different, as evidenced by Sarah Weinman’s great new nonfiction book Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free. Oh, and did I mention that one of the hoodwinked was perhaps one the most privileged and pompous figures of his time, the revered public Conservative, William F. Buckley.