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American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century Hardcover – September 16, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307346943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307346940
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #785,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Blum (The Brigade) tells it with a novelist's flair. In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote's In 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.) ""
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."

From Bookmarks Magazine

Most critics were eager to learn more about this neglected event in American history and were glad to have Blum as their teacher. They were most impressed by the first half of the book, which covers the attacks and investigation and which was several times compared to a Hollywood thriller or an episode of the television show 24. Reviewers were less thrilled by the second part of the book, where Blum introduces Darrow and Griffith into the story. Several felt that these great American personalities were presented superficially, perhaps because Blum attempted too great a scope in the book. But on the whole, critics found American Lightning to be a satisfying work of narrative history.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

More About the Author

Having started out my career as a reporter for the NY Times, I've moved on to being an author. And while I'm still writing non-fiction, I'm now more focused in writing books that are driven by characters and a sustained narrative. I live in Connecticut and am the father of 3 teenagers - one in college, one starting next year, and one still struggling through high school geometry. My tenth book will be published by Crown/Random House April 26. It's entitled THE FLOOR OF HEAVEN and its a true story about a cowboy turned Pinkerton detective who goes off to the Yukon Gold Rush to pursue a puzzling and suspenseful case. Twentieth Century Fox just bought the film rights, and I find the prospect of a movie based on the book to be exciting - as do the bursars at the colleges attended by my kids.

Customer Reviews

Howard Blum has written a narrative nonfiction book that is one of the best I have read.
Joemmama
The great characters in this book include the movie director D.W. Griffith, famous private detective William Burns, and attorney Clarence Darrow.
Lawrence D. Zeilinger
The author attempts to connect three separate historical storylines into a united whole, but he ultimately fails to do a convincing job.
Thriller Lover

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 38 people found the following review helpful By mirasreviews HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"American Lightning" presents one chapter in the fierce cultural war of strikes, propaganda, politics, and violence that raged between labor unions and capitalist businesses in the early part of the 20th century: On October 1, 1910, six explosions destroyed the "Los Angeles Times" building, leaving 21 people dead and 17 injured. The owner of the "Times" newspaper was vehement anti-union propagandist Harrison Gray Otis. The bombing was immediately assumed to be part of a campaign by anarchists to attack the mechanisms of capital in which more than100 bombs were planted across the nation. The city of Los Angeles hired Billy Burns, former Secret Service agent and founder of the Burns Detective Agency, to find the persons responsible.

This is history for the popular fiction market. "American Lightning" tells the story of Billy Burns' investigation and the subsequent campaigns of public relations, witness intimidation, and juror bribery that took place as the three men whom Burns accused awaited trial in Los Angeles. Author Howard Blum relates the story in the style of narrative fiction, like a novel. He attempts to weave together the stories of three prominent men who helped shape this period in American history and were, in turn, shaped by the war between labor and capital: detective Billy Burns, crusading attorney Clarence Darrow, who represented the accused men, and filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who moved his operations from New York to Los Angeles in the midst of all the furor.

I appreciate that Howard Blum is trying to bring a forgotten chapter of American history to a broad audience. The 1910s were a time when the nation's security was threatened by very real violent conspiracies but Americans managed, for the most part, to prevail without succumbing to paranoia on a large scale.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer VINE VOICE on September 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I loved this book. First off, if you love historical novels of any kind this is the book for you. I could go on and on about the events leading up to this story and the events after, but I think that has been done in many of the previous reviews posted. The only thing I think I can add that may be of help to people when decideing whether or not to purchase this book is to say that it ranks right up there with Erik Larson's "Devil in a White City"...(My all time favorite book). Much like Erik Larson, Howard Blum creates such a richly detailed novel filled with incredibley detailed characters and events that before you realize it you've spent the afternoon in another time and place living another's life. Such a wonderful read I was sad to have it end.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Frederick S. Goethel VINE VOICE on September 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
When I think of union activism and violence, I tend to think of the mine workers, the steel workers and other the meat packers. And, I always associate this activity with the Chicago or other eastern cities. I am not sure I even knew that the unions were all that active in Los Angeles.

The author has taken an unusual tack by mixing the stories of D. W. Griffith, William Burns and Clarence Darrow into a cohesive story of what happened during the labor unrest and subsequent bombing in Los Angeles. And, although the three men only met once, in a hotel lobby after the "trail", the actions of each had consequences on the others. Burn's investigation was a rallying point for the unions, Darrow defended the union using techniques created by Griffith and this was all occurring during an explosive time when union and capitalists were at each others throats.

An interesting and enjoyable read of a part of history that I never even knew existed. It is written in an easy to read style with enough detail to understand the circumstances, yet not some much that the reader becomes bogged down in tiny details that are irrelevant to the story.
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22 of 28 people found the following review helpful By G. Dowling on September 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'm quite clearly in the minority on this one. Other readers seem mostly to have had a good read with this. I found it hard to keep my eyes open.

The cover blurb says "Terror, Mystery, Movie-making and the crime of the century." Well, maybe. But I couldn't find much of any of this. Though I think I'm fairly literate in 20th-century American history, I was only vaguely aware of the bombing of the LA Times building and could easily cite others to label as the crime of the century. How about the Lindbergh kidnappping? Any number of serial killers? But I do concede it's interesting to get some information on this.

The Griffith/Pickford aspects of film-making, as presented here, are superficial at best. There's a lot that has been written on how film-making came to southern California, far more engrossing than the bits here.

William Burns, Clarence Darrow -- throw together a few well-known names of the period, place in pot and stir. If this type of novel interests you, try E.J. Doctorow who is masterful at thus recreating a period and making it meaningful.

I hope others might enjoy this book. It's certainly not terrible, but it's just as certainly not great.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Beckham on September 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
That American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century is a true story was the first surprise I had in reading this book. I'm old enough to remember (vaguely) the Symbionese Liberation Army and SDS and had no idea that there was, in the earliest years of the last century, a wave of terrorist bombings so severe that they threatened civil war. As horrendous as the events of 9/11 was, such terrorism has more extensive roots in this country than I knew (and I consider myself fairly well read.)

American Lightening is the true story of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times by a group of desperate union members. The bombing was a response to the equally violent union-busting efforts by the anti-union "Merchant's & Manufacturers Association" know colloquially as the "M&M" lead by the Time's current owner, Harrison Gray Otis.

Otis is only one of so many larger than life characters in this book that the reader may be forgiven in assuming that he's accidentally stepped into a science fiction alternative history, (such as Harry Turtldove's Guns of the South, which is also loaded with epic characters.)

During the course of this book, you will be introduced to "America's Sherlock Holmes," Billy Burns; Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow; and even D.W. Griffith, who (almost unintentionally, it appears) creates the first use of motion pictures as a medium with a message and a social conscience.
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