Fame Comes Home to Speak at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
At the height of its glory, the ancient city-state of Athens is
estimated to have had a population of just 30,000 people. Talbot
County has a population of 37,834. Does a modern-day Socrates walk
our streets unnoticed? Is there an Aristophanes among us, a
Sophocles, a Euclid, an Aristotle? If there is (and why shouldn't
there be?), I think it's safe to assume you will find him or her among
the quiet, happy patrons at the Talbot County Free Library.
Full marks if the lines above seem vaguely familiar. They constituted
the concluding paragraph of a column I wrote back in 2013 for The Star
Democrat ... and now an Easton High School graduate (Class of '03) is
making them look pretty prescient. Casey Cep's first book, Furious
Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, debuted last
month at #6 on The New York Times' non-fiction bestseller list. Not
bad for the first time out of the gate.
Helen Macdonald, author of the Samuel Johnson Prize-winning H Is for
Hawk, is a poet, a research scholar at Cambridge University, and one
of the few authors working today who can write about man's
relationship to nature with uncommon grace and insight. She had this
to say about Cep's work: “It's been a long time since I picked up a
book so impossible to put down. Furious Hours made me forget dinner,
ignore incoming calls, and stay up reading into the small hours. It's
a work of literary and legal detection as gripping as a thriller. But
it's also a meditation on motive and mystery, the curious workings of
history, hope, and ambition, justice, and the darkest matters of life
and death. Casey Cep's investigation into an infamous Southern murder
trial and Harper Lee's quest to write about it is a beautiful,
sobering, and sometimes chilling triumph.”
I would have given my left arm to have Helen Macdonald say something
like that about my first book.
I am now a little more than two-thirds of the way through Furious
Hours, and like Macdonald, I am finding it hard to put down. Despite
the fact she looks awfully young to this old fossil, Cep has already
been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New
Republic. Which may explain why Furious Hours reminds me of one of
those fabulous New Yorker articles you come across from time to time
(usually written by Dexter Filkins or Jill Lepore) that are so
fascinating you almost forget to read the cartoons.
Actually, the book is more like three such articles. The first
section of Furious Hours recounts a series of murders committed by a
well-groomed, morally bankrupt Baptist minister—a man believed by many
to be, in fact, a Voodoo priest. The second tells the story of the
attorney, an unlikely liberal in George Wallace's Alabama, who
successfully defended the minister on charges resulting from those
murders, and then successfully defended the man who, taking revenge
for the killings, murdered the minister. The last part of the book,
the one I am just now reading, introduces the author of To Kill a
Mockingbird into the plot.
If this sounds like a lot of difficult, disparate material to squeeze
into a single book, it is, but Cep handles said material with a
straightforward story-telling style that belies its complexity. I
know I'm going to sound like an old guy when I say this, but I am an
old guy so I can get away with it: I am so proud of Casey Cep. Though
I have never met her, I have met so many promising young people like
her in our Talbot County Public Schools, so many whose futures I have
hoped for and dreamt about. And now Ms. Cep has come along and more
than fulfilled all that I could have ever wished for such a child.
Unsurprisingly, Talbot County has produced a writer worthy of Athens'
Casey Cep will give a reading in the Talbot County Free Library's
Easton branch on Monday, June 24, at 6:00 p.m. There will be copies
of Furious Hours available for purchase, courtesy of Barnes & Noble,
and Ms. Cep will do a book-signing. Afterwards, the Friends of the
Library will host a reception for Ms. Cep that will feature a cake
ordered especially for the occasion ... by her mom. I wouldn't miss it
for the world, and I hope to see you there as well.