Beyond the Book: Background information when reading American Lightning

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American Lightning

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

by Howard Blum

American Lightning by Howard Blum X
American Lightning by Howard Blum
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2009, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Kuhns

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Print Review

"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 Lightning.


The Los Angeles Times journalists who referred to the explosion at their newspaper's headquarters as "the crime of the century" might have been inspired by the 1889 publication of The Crime of the Century by Henry Hunt. This 576-page work chronicles the murder of Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, an Irish-American who threatened to reveal the involvement of the Clan-na-Gael (United Brotherhood) in several explosions in England throughout the early 1880s in an attempt to secure Irish independence from British rule.

For those with an interest in reading about the lesser-known criminal minds of the Victorian era, two titles are worth searching out: Angus McLaren's A Prescription for Murder (1993), which documents the killings of Dr. Thomas Neil Cream, who is considered to be the first serial murderer in the English-speaking world; and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, a superb story of death and destruction during the innovative Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The former is geared towards academia and professional historians, while the latter will attract the same audience that will enjoy American Lightning – those who want a little history with their murder mystery.

Interesting Link: A 2007 Time magazine article listing the Top 25 "Crimes of the Century".


About the Author:
Once a reporter for the New York Times, and twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Howard Blum currently works as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Quite the prolific writer, Blum has authored eight books including several national bestsellers like Wanted!, The Gold of Exodus, and Gangland.

The 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building came to his attention while reading an article commemorating the anniversary of this nearly forgotten tragedy. It took Blum three years to fully document the events narrated in American Lightning. In the September 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, he argues, "This is more than a true-crime drama from the past … It's a part of our national narrative – wiretapping, the suspension of habeas corpus, the search for weapons of mass destruction – we're still dealing with these issues nearly a century later."

Article by Jamie Kuhns

This article was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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