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

3.9 out of 5 stars 159 customer reviews

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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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 339 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307346943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307346940
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (159 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #875,264 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover
Not a lot to add to some of the other critical reviews of this book as I agree that the Burns/Griffith/Otis narrative was scattershot and made for a lot of extraneous material.

One point I have not seen in other reviews that I would expound upon is Blum's clear bias, which - for me - made the book less enjoyable from the beginning. The central conflict in Blum's set-up is the labor versus capital tension that escalated from striking and strike breaking to the bombing that serves as the book's central narrative.

As he lays out this conflict, he is unsparing in his criticism of Otis, his trade association and his allies. While they are "uncompromising," the LA Times' writing is "shrill and unyielding," and their actions to break strikes are "brutal." By contrast, the union leaders are possessed of "strident minds," Griffith's work embodies "the workingman's struggle to put a loaf of bread on his dinner table." Where Otis is "intransigent" and "belligerent," union leader Olaf Tveitmoe is "fierce," "formidable," and "intellectual."

But, that is just one element. Overall, there are just much better reads out there unless you really want to hone in on this crime, this city, or these historical figures.

In fiction or in historical nonfiction, I would look elsewhere for a capsule of this rocky time period at the turn of the century, only forty years removed from the Civil War and in the midst of America's fitful rise to the global power that it would cement in WWII. There is no shortage of good material in what has been a fertile historical period for literature recently.

Mike Dash's work is superior on true crime - as is Larson's in both Devil and Thunderstruck.
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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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