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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century » User review

Truth is stranger then fiction

  • Dec 23, 2008
  • by
Rating:
+5
This spellbinding historical novel takes the reader on a fascinating journey back in time to turn of the century America. Howard Blum's book follows detective Billy Burns furtively across an America flirting with all-out class warfare as he tries to solve what Americans called at the time, 'the crime of the century'. (Americans had no idea what was in store for them later.) Burns, like all the other protagonists of the story, is a self-made man in a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred form of raw capitalism. It was the apogee of the robber barons.

Blum's real-life characters, Billy Burns, D.W. Griffith, Clarence Darrow, and Harrison Otis, not only find themselves in the midst of great social upheaval, but they also, in their own way, shaped American society as well. Whether it's the craftiness of Burns, the vision of Griffith, the grit of Otis, or the trials of Darrow, all the characters are truly believable with convincing dialogue as well. After reading the book, you'll feel like you know each one.

In America the atmosphere is white hot, as strident labor and ruthless management are dangerously close to breaking out into all-our class warfare. Burns is hired by the Los Angeles to find out who bombed Harrison Otis' LA Times building (incidentally horrifically burning dozens of people to death). Was it the labor unions? Anarchists? Or perhaps Otis himself to give an excuse to crush the union movement? Or was it merely an accident? (Gas lighting - along with attendant, occasional explosions - was common at the time.)

I highly recommend this book to any history or crime novel aficionados.

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More American Lightning: Terror, My... reviews
review by . September 01, 2008
Blum's ado is about less than the breathless title and subtitle of this nonfiction narrative. He weaves together thumbnail biographies of private investigator William Burns, film-maker D. W. Griffith, and lawyer Clarence Darrow as they pioneered the 20th-century essence of their professions and intersected during the investigation of the 1910 terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building.    While the tale is moderately interesting, Blum's attempt to popularize the narrative …
review by . October 19, 2011
The
AMERICAN LIGHTNING propones the "crime of the century" (the bombing of the L.A. TIMES building in the early 1910s) to a modern audience. In short, a group of socialists went on a bombing spree in 1910 that culminated in the bombing of the TIMES building. The ringleaders of the crime were eventually caught by the famed private detective William J. Burns and their defense was led by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow. During the time of the bombing and the trial, D.W. Griffith made movies and …
review by . September 18, 2008
The events and personalities recounted in "American Lightning" are probably all but unknown to most readers -- I consider myself relatively conversant with American history, but apart from "bigger" names like Darrow, Gompers, DW Griffith, and Mary Pickford, I knew almost nothing about any of this. This book could, therefore, almost be reviewed as a very well-crafted and well-executed novel. The fact that it's a work of history makes it all the more remarkable and valuable.    In …
review by . September 15, 2008
The 20th century has witnessed many different crimes, and a lot of them have been called "the crime of the century". Perhaps the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 in which 29 people died should be entitled the "first" crime of the century. This book is riveting in its detail of the background, the crime itself, and its aftermath. It also weaves skillfully into the story William Burns, the detective who investigated the case, Clarence Darrow, who defended the accused bombers, and …
review by . September 12, 2008
There's many crimes that have been described as the "Crime of the Century". Leopold and Loeb. The Scopes Monkey Trial. Sacco and Vanzetti. The Rosenbergs. The Lindburgh Kidnapping. The Patty Hearst Trial. The OJ Simpson Trial.    But the earliest of the these crimes, and the one in many ways most deserving of the appelation "Crime of the Century" was the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, and prior to this book, I'd never even heard of it.    This …
review by . September 10, 2008
Howard Blum has helped to remind us a largely forgotten crime and trial that mesmerized the nation. The story is of a terrorist bombing that killed 21 people at the LA Times building. This was a time in American's history when dynamite bombings were common but rarely deadly.      To solve the crime the city of Los Angeles hires the great "Billy Burns". Who is he you ask? The truth is he was a real life American Sherlock Holmes. Burns analysis of the case alone is …
review by . August 30, 2008
American Lightning - Vine Book Review    Author Howard Blum has chronicled a recount of the "Crime of the Century" in American Lightning, a riveting account of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building on October 1, 1910, the capture of the men responsible and their subsequent trial.    It is a narrative of the battle of the unionism versus capitalism and the violent outbreaks that occurred throughout the country, but most specifically that of the unions …
About the reviewer
Michael Neulander ()
Ranked #44
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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Starred Review. In 1911, Iron Workers Union leaders James and Joseph McNamara plea-bargained in exchange for prison sentences instead of death after bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times—killing 21 people and wounding many more. The bombing had been part of a bungled assault on some 100 American cities. After the McNamaras went to jail, Clarence Darrow, their defense attorney, wound up indicted for attempting to bribe the jury, but won acquittal after a defense staged by the brilliant Earl Rogers. The McNamaras were investigated by William J. Burns—near legendary former Secret Service agent and proprietor of a detective agency. Surprisingly, Burns's collaborator in the investigation was silent film director D.W. Griffith. This tangled and fascinating tale is the stuff of novels, andVanity Faircontributing editor Blum (The Brigade) tells it with a novelist's flair. In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote'sIn Cold Blood,Blum paints his characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them—and their era—come alive. Blum's prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive—all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative.(Sept.)""
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Details

ISBN-10: 0307346943
ISBN-13: 978-0307346940
Author: Howard Blum
Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Crown
First to Review
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