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

Writing history with lightning

  • Sep 12, 2008
  • by
Rating:
+5
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 story brings together three of the greatest figures of the early twentieth century. Clarence Darrow, who would be involved in the Leopold and Loeb trial as well as the Scopes Monkey Trial; Billy Burns, who would go on to be the first director of what would become the FBI; and D W Griffith, one of the great early American filmmakers.

The three men's lives intersect during the events surrounding this terrorist attack. Burns is the lead investigator, trying to sort out the crime. Darrow is the man who defends the accused. Griffith is the propaganda meister, the one who makes the films to stir up which ever side he feels like stirring up (or which ever side pays him the most).

It's fascinating in this book to watch how the investigation by Burns unfolds. You get a sense that in 1910/1911, the nation was really getting ever smaller, as he criss-crosses the country to Indiana, to California, to Washington, following leads where ever they take him. Using the technology of the day (telephones, telegraphs, trains), he busts his backside to figure out who was behind the bombings, putting aside his own preferences and prejudices to do so.

You also get a nice window into the early days of film. People like Mary Pickford and, to a lesser extent, Lillian Gish figure into the plot. Several of Griffith's films are mentioned (many of which you can view online), and you get an idea of how rough-and-tumble and disorganized film was back in the day.

Plus you get to see what the legal system was like back at the end of the Guilded Age, and how much both sides were able to get away with; things they'd never successfully pull off nowadays. Or so one hopes.

Also fascinating is the sad, never-ending struggle between labor and capital. Between the workers who just want honest compensation and the capitalists who have no interest in giving it to them. The terrorist attacks (yes, plural. There were several), that were going on at the time directly related to this struggle.

The book is well-written and intelligent, with a great feel for the time and the place. As someone who has always been fascinated by the Guilded Age and as someone who has a great love of film, this story really hit me right where I live, and it didn't let go until the very end.

If you like books like The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America and The Alienist: A Novel, or films like The Birth of a Nation, or Intolerance, I highly recommend reading this book.

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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 . December 23, 2008
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 …
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 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
C R Swanson ()
Ranked #60
   I'm an aspiring writer and reviewer. I run a blog, I'm working on a novel and spend my free time reading and playing video games. I also spend waaaaay too much time and money on movies. … 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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