What I’m Reading (No. 130): Furious Hours / The Shadow of the Wind / an interview with S. C. Gwynne

I’m a sucker for a literary mystery. I’ve read a couple this summer that I’m excited to pass along, one non-fic and one fic; I also asked some bookish questions of one of my favorite history authors, S. C. Gwynne. Since this a long edition, let’s jump right in.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (2019, 308 pages)

“Seventeen years had passed since she’d published To Kill a Mockingbird and twelve since she’d finished helping her friend Truman Capote report the crime story in Kansas that became In Cold Blood. Now, finally, she was ready to try again.”

The story of Harper Lee — and more specifically why she was a literary one-hit wonder — has long interested readers, historians, and even Lee’s friends and family. There were a number of fits and starts in the decades after TKAM was published, and though she never stopped writing, Lee could never pull together a story she was happy with.

In Furious Hours, debut author Casey Cep tackles the mystery of one of those stories that Lee tried to write.

Lee was drawn to crime tales; while I tend to remember TKAM as a coming-of-age morality tale, it certainly falls into the crime genre. And her influence on the crime book of the 20th century — In Cold Blood — has been criminally under-appreciated. So of course the story of Alabama’s murderous preacher caught her attention, and doubly so when that preacher was shot and killed in front of an audience.

Cep first relates the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell himself. A handful of family members wound up dead with Maxwell as the beneficiary in multiple shady life insurance policies. Authorities — and those defrauded insurance companies — caught on pretty quickly, but nobody could ever firmly pin any evidence on the slippery man. Finally, one man in the community had enough, and shot Maxwell in the head at point blank range . . . at a funeral.

It’s then that Cep writes Harper Lee’s story. Her numerous struggles with writer’s block, the generous gift that allowed her to finally write full-time, her even bigger struggles with success (“the better To Kill a Mockingbird fared, the worse its author seemed to”), and the ultimately fruitless quest for the next book.

Harper thought she finally had it with the Maxwell story. She tried diligently for years to put it together, splitting her time between her New York City apartment and her small home in Monroeville, Alabama. But, for a number of reasons, the pages never came together.

The brilliance of Cep’s book is that she tells the Maxwell story that Harper wanted to, while also compassionately conveying the narrative of Lee herself. It’s written like the best true crime books (a la I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), but with a dash of biography and literary mystery thrown in. Her prose caught my attention right away and it never once left off from that initial high. I can’t recommend Furious Hours enough; I always have a hard time ranking books, but I’m pretty sure this was my favorite non-fiction read of the year so far.

A Few Bookish Questions With S. C. Gwynne

Sam has written some of my favorite history titles, including Empire of the Summer Moon and Hymns of the Republic. I’ve not yet read Rebel Yell, but it awaits me in my Kindle library. I think you’ll get a kick out of his answers below.

1) Most of your books are in the history genre. Are there books or authors that have particularly shaped your view of history and/or how history should be written? 

I was just rereading Robert Caro’s first LBJ book, The Path to Power, and being reminded how truly great it is, and what an influence it has been on me. Reviewers have cheapened the word “magisterial” through overuse. This actually is masterful history, in which the writing is as good as the research. [Check out my review of The Path to Power here.]

2) Much of your reading, I'm sure, is in the world of archives, memoirs, non-fiction accounts, etc. What do you read on your off-time (if that exists)? What do you read for fun and/or for comfort? 

I would read more good fiction if it existed. Fiction is so disappointing. I do try. I would read John Le Carre again but I can’t bear to. There are limits. 

3) You said in an interview once that the Civil War, in particular, does not lack for pure information; there's in fact a glut of it. Rather, you noted, the potential for more work is in interpretation and analysis. What do you think are a couple primary areas of that time period that could use some re-analyzing? 

The subject has been so well scoured that I can’t think of any. And now the leftists are having at a thorough revision of the period. You know, the Lincoln-is-a-racist-imperialist-hypocritical-murdering-scumbag approach to history. Maybe that should be re-re-analyzed. 

4) What are you reading and enjoying now?

I have just read Cult of Glory, a total takedown and demythification of the Texas Rangers by Doug Swanson. It’s brilliant, and a lot of fun to read. 

5) Rather than ask about a favorite book, I prefer this version: What are a couple books you find yourself recommending, gifting, or generally just thinking a lot about?

Having just complained about the lack of good fiction, I do find Hilary Mantel, who just published the third piece of her Cromwell Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, to be one of the best writers going. Taken together with Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, this is some of the very best fiction I have ever read. Her prose is transcendent. I find myself reading very, very slowly just to see how she possibly pulls it off. It’s no accident that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies both won the Booker Prize. This one probably will too. Has anyone ever done that before?

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2001, 506 pages)

“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”

With what I think is one of the great opening lines I’ve encountered, Zafon sucked me into his hard-to-categorize novel. Published a couple decades ago, it’s actually one of the bestselling novels of all time. I had no idea when I first cracked it open; turns out that Zafon’s book is a national treasure in his native Spain.

It starts with young Daniel Sempere being shown a secret library by his bookseller father:

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

He’s allowed to take a book from this literary cemetery and chooses a seemingly unknown title called The Shadow of the Wind. Daniel is entranced by the story and embarks on a quest to find out the history of not only this particular book, but also its shadowy author, Julian Carax. Turns out there’s a masked man seeking out and burning every copy of Carax’s novels he can find.

Over the course of many years, and with help from bookshop sidekick Fermin (“Only three or four things are worth living for; the rest is manure”), who ends up being one of my favorite characters in any novel I’ve read in a long time, Daniel slowly unravels the mystery. It’s a love story, a murder mystery, a literary puzzle, and, I think, an ode to books and stories.

As I mentioned, I was pulled into the story right away, especially in the first quarter or so. The second quarter was a little slow and lacking direction, but then the second half, for the most part, was a barnburner to the end. Zafon’s lustrious writing makes it almost feel like you’re reading a fantasy novel, but you’re not. There are a lot of mysterious shadows in the story, but eventually, they do all come to light and there’s nothing supernatural about it. It’s an entirely enjoyable reading experience with a cast of likable characters — which seems to be somewhat of a rarity these days.

Plus, who can resist life advice like this when it’s wrapped up in the middle of a great story:

“Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don’t stop at your station.”

Seems like a good place to leave off. Thank you for the time and inbox space. Let me know what you’re reading!