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

Blum's ado about less

  • Sep 1, 2008
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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 by continually referring to William Burns as "Billy" is more annoying than endearing, and his frequent use of using the third-person omniscient voice (" . . . the detective realized with a sudden intuition . . ."), calls into question the seriousness and reliability of his account. Blum claims in his note on the sources that all such omniscient references are documented in his sources, yet felt it unnecessary in a "nonacademic history to give a full account of all the sources I consulted." These statements suggest that the reader must take at least some caution in relying on this account for historical veracity. Blum should give readers of popular nonfiction more credit for intelligence than this.

Also, while Blum commits at least an equal portion of his tale to Griffith, whose importance to film and Hollywood history is unquestioned, Blum failed to convincingly tie Griffith to the events investigated by Burns and tried by Darrow. While Griffith did make an early short silent film that depicted the labor/capitalist struggle at the root of the union organization efforts that were blamed (or credited) for the bombing, and while he did very briefly meet Blum's other two main protagonists, he was not directly involved in the investigations and trials. One might uncharitably suspect Blum of using Griffith to pad his tale with the excitement of early Hollywood scuttlebutt.

In any case, if you don't find it extremely annoying when a historical character most often known as "William Burns" is addressed as "Billy", and if you don't hold too high a standard for handling of source material, this is a relatively harmless way to pass a few hours.

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review by . October 19, 2011
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review by . September 18, 2008
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review by . September 15, 2008
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #38
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … 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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