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American lightning: terror, mystery,…

American lightning: terror, mystery, movie-making, and the crime of the… (2008)

by Howard Blum

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I'm not one for Historical Narratives, so I wasn't really sure of what I would find in this novel. Turned out it was exactly what I suspected, and why I'm not into Historical Narratives.

Even with my initial apprehension I was initially drawn to this novel by the mention of Clarence Darrow, D.W. Griffith, Samuel Gompers, and Billy Burns (Frankly, I had never heard of Burns before this book). I guess my knowledge of American history is, sadly, lacking. I had no idea that these persons had any professional interaction, or that there was a Trial of the Century well before anyone ever heard of O.J. Simpson.

The book deals with the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, killing 21 people; the hunt for the person responsible, and their subsequent trial. The bombing, as the book points out in detail, was a direct result of a intense nationwide conflict between wealthy business owners, Capitalists, and labor, which was significantly influenced by the Socialist movement. Seems pertinent for me to point to a quote by Edmund Burke, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." But, what do I know.

The book is full of interesting facts that attempt to describe the feelings and attitudes of early twentieth century American. Things that I did not know or, clearly, did not understand. The book was interesting and informative, just not entertaining. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it wasn't worth reading. From a historical point of view, it was great. As entertainment, which is important to me, it was somewhat lacking.
( )
  baggman | Feb 11, 2016 |
In the early morning hours of October 1, 1910 the Los Angeles Times building was destroyed by a tremendous explosion resulting in the death of 21 people. The United States had been plagued with numerous dynamite blasts during the war between Labor and Union sympathizers but none had caused such a devastating loss of life. The investigation and trial would bring together William Burns, America's most famous detective and the State's answer to Sherlock Holmes, Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer who would find himself at his lowest point both personally and professionallly, and D.W. Griffith, the owner of BioGraph pictures and the director of motion pictures that would sway public opinion for decades to come.

Although the investigation of the crime is meant to be the focus of the book I enjoyed the history of the 3 powerful men involved much more. Burns was a detective with unbelievable determination to bring the culprits to justice and he was not above a bit of kidnapping to accomplish his task. Darrow, although a respected and distinguished lawyer, would himself be indicted for bribing jury members. Griffith had a liking for the young ladies many of whom would star in his short films. I liked the book quite well but the author refers to the Times explosion as the 'crime of the centure' so many times that it becomes a bit annoying. Certainly this cowardly act of murder brought to light the cantankerous struggle between Labor and Union parties.
( )
  Ellen_R | Jan 15, 2016 |
The Players:

William "Billy" Burns: destined to be the first director of the FBI.

Clarence Darrow: destined to be known as, possibly, the greatest trial lawyer in American history.

D.W. Griffith: destined to direct the first true motion picture epic.

In American Lightning, author Howard Blum interweaves two years in the lives of these three men, brought together by an all but forgotten moment in history. The 1910, early morning bombing of the L.A. Times office building, that killed an estimated 21 men.

Mr. Blum is able to bring this story together in a way that reads almost as a fictional story. He uses his extensive research of newspaper articles and autobiographies of the men involved and those involved in their lives to access actual dialogue during what at the time was "The Crime of the Century".

But, lest you think Burns, Darrow and Griffith are the only players, there is a deeper story in these pages.

We know the What? When? Where? and How? of this crime. The unanswered questions are Who? and Why?

Who?: J.J. McNamara and his very loyal brother Jim McNamara, among others.

Why?: Socialists vs. Capitalists

Unions were at their height. Men working for and fighting against the business owners in order to feed their families and own a bit of the American dream. It seemed a time when the rich were getting richer and the middle class was loosing ground.

And this takes us to an even deeper story in American Lightning. The parallels of this particular time period and this specific crime to America today. Blum doesn't hit the reader over the head with this apparent show of "history repeating itself", but it's a hard theme to miss. He does go into complete detail in his final entry, "A Note On Sources". The author explains this far more eloquently than I could ever hope, so I'll not try.

All that said, this is also a very entertaining book.

Detective William Burns is a character, in the truest sense of the word. He is a man who has no compunction when it comes to the blurring of legal lines if it means the difference between getting or not getting his man, or his money, or his fame.

Attorney Clarence Darrow is an unusually depressed man, seemingly always on the side of the underdog and fighting to exhaustion even if he doesn't entirely agree with the circumstances.

Film-maker D.W. Griffith, having resentfully fallen into moving pictures, is a lecherous man, to but it kindly, who spared no time in making the absolute most of what he believed was a terrible situation.

In the end, American Lightning is a book well worth the read for the purpose of both entertainment and education. ( )
  retropelocin | Dec 13, 2013 |
Slight and breezy in good ways, even handed and interesting. An likable attempt at the Erik Larsen style combo of crime and related history. ( )
  bontley | Aug 24, 2013 |
If history is "the record of encounters between character and circumstance", this book has characters and circumstances galore. Still, this telling of the personalities and events surrounding the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 is more anecdotal story telling than serious history. Affable and entertaining. ( )
  Lemeritus | Apr 13, 2013 |
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It's like writing history with lightning. -- President Woodrow Wilson after viewing "The Birth of a Nation," the first movie ever shown in the White House.
I know it's risky, but I still write history out of my engagement with the present. -- Richard Hofstadter
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As the detective made his way along a bustling Fourteenth Street in New York City that late December day in 1910, he was confident that, after a frustrating month in Los Angeles, he was at least closing in on one murderer.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307346943, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:22 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

An unforgettable tale of murder, deceit, celebrity, media manipulation, and film as propaganda, when the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building exposed the deadly "national dynamite plot" by trade unionists to terrorize America with one-hundred bombings in a doomed attempt to force capitalism to its knees. The relentless pursuit, capture, trial, and punishment of the bombers made a national hero of America's Sherlock Holmes, master detective Billy Burns, and entangled crusading defense lawyer Clarence Darrow in a reckless, nearly career-ending scheme to bribe witnesses and jurors and throttle justice.… (more)

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