Summary and book reviews of American Lightning by Howard Blum

American Lightning

Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century

By Howard Blum

American Lightning
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Sep 2008,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2009,
    352 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Kuhns

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Book Summary

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 ?lmmaker 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.

Chapter One

It was nearly midnight on September 4, 1910, in Peoria, Illinois, when the dark sky above the train yard opened and a pelting rain suddenly poured down. Surprised, the night watchman ran to a boxcar for shelter. That decision saved his life. He was safely inside when the bomb exploded. It was a clock bomb, rather crudely made but fueled by ten gallons of nitroglycerin. It had been placed under a nearby railway car transporting an eighty-ton girder.

The force of the blast knocked the watchman to the boxcar’s wooden floor. Outside the girder shot high into the sky. Shards of metal showered down, spears falling like iron lightning bolts amid the hard, hammering rain.

Within hours the president of the McClintic-Marshall Iron Works, the company that had fabricated the girder for a bridge being built across the Illinois River, hired the Burns Detective Agency to investigate the blast. A local Burns operative left his bed and hurried to the scene. Under a freight car...

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Although one reviewer equated Blum's approach to that of Truman Capote, the comparison between American Lightning and In Cold Blood is not completely plausible. Where Capote succeeded at captivating his audience by portraying the villains and their victims alike, Blum fails to take that route and instead takes the easier road by only dissecting the main characters- Burns, Darrow and Griffith. This is not to say that American Lightning is not interesting and a narrative page-turner, but unlike Capote, Blum does not turn over every stone – only the biggest and shiniest. In essence, we only get one side of the story. True, the events took place over a hundred years ago so Blum could not interview any of those involved, but with the vast amount of documentation at his disposal, he might have told us a bit more about those individuals time has overlooked.

In the end, most readers will appreciate this book for bringing this forgotten part of history to the surface and turning it into an enthralling story; and scholars more versed in American history will gain a better perspective of how this event affected the choices Burns, Darrow, and Griffith made later in life. Out of a scale of 5, I would give it a 4.5.   (Reviewed by Jamie Kuhns).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Blum's prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive-all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. The author’s eye for scene-setting and subtle explication perfectly mimics a Griffith-style camera. 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.

Library Journal

Master detective William Burns on one side and famed attorney Clarence Darrow on the other…A riveting account of 20th century homegrown political terrorism.

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Beyond the Book

"Crimes of the Century"
Tacking down a precise date for when the term "Crime of the Century" was first utilized is not easy, but most scholars would attach the name of Jack the Ripper to the creation of that notorious slogan. The killing spree in 1888 that resulted in the deaths of at least five accountable victims and possibly ten more was never solved, but the fear it provoked in England, and across the world for that matter, is legendary.

In the United States, the list of highly publicized crimes is no less spectacular. Arguably, at the top of list is the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. Yet, some 22 years earlier, Los Angeles newspaper headlines broadcast the shocking horror that Blum recaptures in American ...

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