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American lightning: terror, mystery, movie-making, and the crime of the… (2008)
by Howard Blum
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This was a story involving domestic terrorism at the beginning of the 20th century. The key case involved labor union leaders planting dynamite time bombs around the country, targeting anti-union sites. I was struck by the similar behaviors of the guilty parties then and now. At that time, when the union terrorists were tracked down and accused, union leaders and loyalists, with no knowlege of the crimes, immediately denied involvement, and accused the investigators of planting evidence or outright lying to hurt the union cause. It reminds me of the accusations against the police in the OJ case, the accusations of al-Qaeda leaders accusing U.S. troops of atrocities, the Ahmadinejad of Iraq denying muslim involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich denying his corruption, and so many other politicians denying wrong-doing and instead accusing their accusors. People love conspiracy theories, and are all too eager to believe the accused instead inspite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Must be human nature. Anyway, it was an interesting look back at the era. ( )
With the predominance of September 11 in the modern imagination, it is sometimes difficult to remember that Americans have dealt with terrorism before. At the start of the last century, the nation experienced a succession of bomb attacks, one of the deadliest of which was the bombing of the offices of the ‘Los Angeles Times’ This attack, and the subsequent investigation of it, is the subject of Howard Blum’s book. His narrative focuses primarily on three men: William J. Burns, the lead detective investigating the case; film director D. W. Griffith, and famed attorney Clarence Darrow, who subsequently defended the accused men.
An accomplished journalist, Blum uses the events surrounding the bombing to open a window into American life at that time. Though his focus never wavers from the investigation and trial spawned by the bombing for more than a couple of pages, his brief digressions add color and depth to the story he is telling. The resulting book reads almost like a novel in some places, entertaining while recounting the dramatic events of the case. This is a book that true-crime fans and people interested in the era will enjoy, both for its retelling of this often-overlooked episode and for the capable way in which it is retold.
Blum, in this book, relates the story of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, and the investigation into who committed the act. Insofar as that goes, the story is well done, and gets across the salient points competently. There's also the analysis of the defence by Clarence Darrow, the famed attorney, and the trouble he got into regarding jury tampering. The biggest issue I have with the book is Blum's attempt to shoehorn movie director and movie pioneer D.W. Griffith into the narrative. Darrow, William Burns (the detective who investigated the case) and Griffith happened to meet up once at the same time, and paths tangentially cross, but frankly, it feels like Blum shoehorned that aspect of the book into it because he wanted to, not necessarily because it fit. As such, I can't really recommend the book squarely because of that flaw.
Great start but I thought it bogged down a little at the end. Still I learned a lot about a bad incident in CA. History which I knew nothing about.
This book is excellent when focused on the central mystery of the horrible 1911 explosion of the Los Angeles Times building that left 21 people dead, the war between unions and capitalists, and the topsy-turvy court case that followed. Much of the book follows the efforts--outright unconstitutional at times--of the "American Sherlock Holmes," William J. Burns as he pursues justice.
Where the book falters in a major way, though, is in how it markets itself: Terror, Mystery, & the Birth of Hollywood. The narrative wanders to follow D.W. Griffith and how he changed the way films were made through new techniques and marketable stars like Mary Pickford. It simply does not fit with the main plot. This is especially frustrating for me because I picked it up for the Hollywood angle, and while I was fascinated by the real life detective work and court case, I can't help but feel like I was terribly mislead. Judging by other reviews, I am certainly not the only one to feel this way.
Part of the problem is the complexity of the story Blum has taken on.... Blum glances at this but leaves us with little sense of the struggle for the soul of Los Angeles that was going on in the early 1900s. Indeed, “American Lightning” lacks feeling for place...But these are the sorts of mistakes that can creep into even the best of histories, and, despite its flaws and limitations, “American Lightning” has tremendous verve. It flies along, with Blum’s fair-minded analysis of motive and a wide variety of memorable character snapshots.
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Wikipedia in English (1)
A tale of murder, deceit, celebrity, media manipulation, and film as propaganda, when the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 exposed a 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 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. Meanwhile, the events inspired D.W. Griffith to make his groundbreaking film The Birth of a Nation.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)364.1523097949409041Social sciences Social problems and services; associations Criminology Crimes and Offenses Offenses against persons Homicide Murder History, geographic treatment, biography North America
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