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American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Centuryby Howard Blum
American Lightning is history at its most gripping. Fans of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood will not want to miss this one. The subject is the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times offices, and Howard Blum’s narrative of America 100 years ago will appeal to crime buffs, Hollywood historians, and armchair detectives. With unforgettable characters and a thriller’s plot, American Lightning will keep you reading!
"This is popular history, written to be as entertaining as fiction. Blum creates a fictional effect by omitting the dull stuff, and never pausing to explain where his information comes from. This creates a sense of certainty about material that, on reflection, sometimes seems doubtable, but it keeps the story moving fast." Russell Baker, The New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
It was an explosion that reverberated across the country—and into the very heart of early-twentieth-century America. On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times Building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured. But as it turned out, this was just a prelude to the devastation that was to come.
In American Lightning, acclaimed author Howard Blum masterfully evokes the incredible circumstances that led to the original "crime of the century" — and an aftermath more dramatic than even the crime itself.
With smoke still wafting up from the charred ruins, the city's mayor reacts with undisguised excitement when he learns of the arrival, only that morning, of America's greatest detective, William J. Burns, a former Secret Service man who has been likened to Sherlock Holmes. Surely Burns, already world famous for cracking unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises, can run the perpetrators to ground.
Through the work of many months, snowbound stakeouts, and brilliant forensic sleuthing, the great investigator finally identifies the men he believes are responsible for so much destruction. Stunningly, Burns accuses the men — labor activists with an apparent grudge against the Los Angeles Times's fiercely anti-union owner — of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.
While preparation is laid for America's highest profile trial ever — and the forces of labor and capital wage hand-to-hand combat in the streets — two other notable figures are swept into the drama: industry-shaping filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who perceives in these events the possibility of great art and who will go on to alchemize his observations into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation; and crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow, committed to lend his eloquence to the defendants, though he will be driven to thoughts of suicide before events have fully played out.
Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can't-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.
One of the bloodiest and most spectacular American crimes of the 20th century took place in October 1910, when a series of explosions ripped through the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people and doing extensive damage. The attack occurred at a time when the country generally and California in particular were torn by a variety of conflicts, many having to do with labor and capital,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and the press took the attack as symptomatic. For a while it was known as "the crime of the century," but the century was young, and eventually many others came along to compete for that dubious distinction. The crime and its aftermath make for a compelling story, but you'd scarcely know that from this dreadful book, a thoroughgoing dud from first page to last. Howard Blum, a freelance reporter and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, claims that what he has written is "more a narrative, an expansive and hopefully dramatic and resonating story about the past, than a historian's narrow, fact-laden tome," but in truth what he's written (and written badly, as that misuse of "hopefully" suggests) is a piece of hack journalism that attempts to fabricate connections between three interesting men of the day but almost entirely fails to do so. My own hunch is that Blum thinks he's written a nonfiction variation on the themes played in E.L. Doctorow's celebrated novel "Ragtime," but such magic as Doctorow managed to extract from the same point in American history is utterly absent in this contrived, plodding, self-infatuated "tome." The three men are William J. Burns, head of the Burns National Detective Agency, anointed by the New York Times as "the greatest detective certainly, and perhaps the only really great detective, the only detective of genius whom the country has produced"; D. W. Griffith, who by 1910 "had directed nearly two hundred short films" and was soon to achieve greatness (and notoriety) with "The Birth of a Nation"; and Clarence Darrow, "the country's famous crusading attorney, the champion of populist (and often lost) causes." Cranking up his cliche machine, writing so overheatedly that the reader's eyes are scorched, Blum intones: "All three men would be caught up in 'the crime of the century,' the mystery, and the trial that followed. And in that swirl of events, three men, each deeply flawed, each goaded by a powerful ego, each in his way a practitioner of the actor's craft, each possessing a unique genius, would not only reshape their own lives and that of the times in which they lived, but they would help permanently transform the nature of American thought, politics, celebrity, and culture." I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. For starters, only two of the men were involved in the case to any significant degree. Burns was hired by the city of Los Angeles to investigate the crime and tracked down its perpetrators. Darrow was hired to represent the defendants and managed to plea bargain them away from the executioner's grasp, but sullied his reputation by tampering with witnesses and buying jurors. Griffith was interested in the case but had nothing to do with it. The closest Blum is able to get him into the action is to claim that Frank Wolfe, who in 1913 released "From Dusk to Dawn," a film loosely based on the case, had received his "entire film education" by watching movies Griffith made for Biograph and "had been seduced by D.W.'s new aesthetic" of "close-ups, cross-cutting, realism, star performers." Beyond that, any claim that the ostensible involvement of all three men in the Los Angeles bombing reshaped their lives and "the times in which they lived" is hyperbolic. For Burns, the case was merely one in a long series, distinguished to be sure by the determination and guile with which he tracked down the bombers but scarcely the highlight in a career that led to his appointment in 1921 as director of the federal agency that became the F.B.I. Darrow's career did not really revive until the mid-1920s, when two celebrated cases — the Leopold-Loeb murder trial in Chicago and the Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee — put him back on the front pages. As for Griffith, one can only ask: What in the world is this guy doing in this book? The answer actually is easy. Blum is hell-bent on achieving Significance. It's not enough that the Los Angeles story is interesting on its own merits; he has to tart it up by connecting it to the rise of the movies, which "had become integrated into American life, a natural part of the national consciousness." He's after Relevance, too, which is why he writes, of the "terror campaign" of bombings in 1910: "The terrorists wanted to destroy the Republic. To defend the nation, (Burns) refused to be bound by a squeamish, impractical interpretation of the law. He had no qualms about taking liberties with the Constitution. This was war. And he knew he was on the side of patriotism and justice." Take that, Bush and Cheney and Ashcroft! Take this, too, you and your weapons of mass destruction: "Facts ... could be twisted and wedged to fit into any preconceived theory, the intrigue of any conspiracy." And this: "In one era, the precious commodity of water stirred intrigue. In another, oil helped to drive the plot. One century's detectives sought out dynamite caches, another's hunted downs (sic) WMDs." Why, if that doesn't get your blood boiling, nothing ever will. We know now, thanks to Howard Blum, that the events of the present day were all foreshadowed a century ago in Los Angeles, which means we get to be angry at Bush and Cheney and Ashcroft all over again, and which as a result might even sell a few books. In the hope of nipping that possibility in the bud, herewith a quick summary of the facts of the case. The bombing of October 1 was the climax of an extended period in which various parts of the country had undergone bombings, including one in Peoria, Ill., that attracted wide attention. Many people assumed these to be the work of radical unionists, fears that intensified as business leaders and newspaper publishers expressed vehemently anti-labor sentiments. Among the most outspoken of these was Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who had "transformed (it) not only into a commercial success but also into a fiercely conservative, anti-union journal." It was no great surprise, therefore, that his building was targeted, though there is reason to believe that the bombers had not wanted to kill anyone. As Burns and his men uncovered evidence, it became clear that there were important similarities between the Peoria and Los Angeles bombs. Eventually, the trail led to Indianapolis and J.J. McNamara, secretary-treasurer of the International Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, as well as his brother Jim and Ortie McManigal, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who said he had been recruited two years earlier by a member of the union's executive board "to blow up an office building that was being constructed by a nonunion crew." McManigal confessed, and the McNamara brothers were extradited to California. The evidence against them was so strong that even Darrow believed they were guilty; he persuaded them to plead guilty and then managed to convince the court not to execute them. The story is more detailed and complicated than that, needless to say, but there is nothing in Blum's telling of it to warrant frittering away any reader's time on "American Lightning." As one with a strong interest in various aspects of early 20th-century American life, I came to the book with considerable anticipation, but that was dashed by the end of the 11-page prologue. The rest was one long slog. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"As good a true-crime tale as you could hope to find, well-researched, vivid, irresistible." Andrew Solomon, author of the National Book Award-winning The Noonday Demon
"Master detective William Burns on one side and famed attorney Clarence Darrow on the other....A riveting account of 20th century homegrown political terrorism." Library Journal
"Blum is at his best when exploring the motivations, the genius and the deep flaws of his three principals, men who occupied the same room only once in their lives, but who are memorably linked in this book. Unfailingly entertaining." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
A masterpiece of narrative history that vividly brings to life the original crime of the century, American Lightning shows the lasting impact the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times offices had on three remarkable individuals and, through them, the country itself.
About the Author
Howard Blum is the author of eight previous books, including the national bestsellers Wanted!, The Gold of Exodus, and Gangland. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Blum was also a reporter at the New York Times, where he won numerous journalism awards and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting.
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