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American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood & the Crime of the Century

3.47  ·  Rating Details ·  2,274 Ratings  ·  339 Reviews
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, ...more
Hardcover, 339 pages
Published September 16th 2008 by Crown Publishing Group (NY) (first published January 1st 2008)
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Feb 19, 2009 Shelly rated it it was ok
Shelves: true-story
I was looking for a light, quick, entertaining read that I didn't have to think too much about so I picked up this book b/c I thought how can I lose with a true-crime novel about unionist leaders accused of blowing up the L.A. Times building b/c they didn't like the press they were getting, a detective known as the "American Sherlock Holmes", D.W. Griffith, and a very young city of Los Angeles? I like History, I like crime stories, it's a win-win. Wong-Wong.

Although the story did have it's mome
Sep 29, 2008 Robert rated it liked it
Generally a very good read, but I have a couple of quibbles--No index ( a horrible choice for a book of history), a couple of factual boners--the population of Los Angeles was closer to 350,000 in 1910 than to the 900,000 cited in the book, and "A Corner in Wheat" was NOT 32 frames long--that would have made it approximetely 2 seconds in length--the author may have meant 32 scenes.
The idea of the book--that Wiliam J. Burns, Clarence Darrow and filmmaker D.W. Griffith, acting separately at a mom
Dec 05, 2015 Karla rated it it was ok
Anyone who's delved into the subgenre of "popular history" has probably run across a title or two that is a rambling, bloated mess with, perhaps, one irrelevant narrative thread inserted into the main premise with all the subtlety of a crowbar.

This is such a book.

Just what does "The Birth of Hollywood" have to do with anarchists bombing a newspaper office? Well, D.W. Griffith made movies about social issues. And some of the personalities involved with the case probably watched at least one of th
Jan 12, 2009 Anna rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Southern California history fans, Hollywood buffs, newspaper buffs
I agree with the reviews on this book that likened it to The Devil in the White City Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America ; this book had the same two plot lines converging, famous characters, and a sensational murder mystery behind it, but Larson's book was more deftly written.

It was a strain trying to weave D.W. Griffith and the evolution of Hollywood in to the L.A. Times bombing for the length of the entire book; I could buy into it for the first hundred pages, but then
Dec 08, 2008 Paula rated it really liked it
A couple of years ago, "The Devil in the White City" kicked off a trend of writing history books with a narrative, almost fictional style, and "American Lightning" is clearly indebted to it. They even designed the cover with a similar aesthetic. I thought it was the same author until I checked the "Other Works" page. Devious, yes. And in this case, acceptable, because it was nearly as good.

"Lightning" follows the 'American Sherlock Homes' as he pieces together the Crime of the Century. No, not
William Thomas
Jul 22, 2012 William Thomas rated it it was ok
I couldn't remember for the life of me what this book reminded me of. A magic trick maybe? All sleight of hand and prestige, but a closer look has us realizing we can see all the wires and the false bottoms and right up its sleeve. But more than that, it was more like a con. Like that old folk tale about the travelers who trick a town into giving them food?

Stone Soup. That's what this book is. I didn't realize it at first, but as it wore on, it became clear that this piece was more of a contriva
Mar 07, 2009 Dkeslin rated it it was amazing
Starting with a bomb that was set in the Los Angeles Times building, this nonfiction thriller leads to a veiled plot across the whole united states involving labor unions and leads to a trial involving Clarence Darrow and weaving the web to include D. W. Griffith and the birth of Hollywood moviemaking. A rapid page turner that reads like a great fiction detective novel.
Mar 10, 2009 Kemper rated it liked it
Fans of The Devil in the White City should like this one. It's narrative history set against the backdrop of the bombing of a conservative turn-of-the-century newspaper. Clarence Darrow and D.W. Griffith are a couple of the more famous people the book tracks through the case. Lightweight history but an entertaining read.
Feb 21, 2015 Diane rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, true-crime
A well written, fascinating account of the bombing of the LA Times building in 1910 by the McNamara brothers. This is definitely a case where there are no heroes, just victims, crooks, bullies, and very misguided activists who believe that violence will get them what they want.

This was during what only could be called a war between labor and business owners. Employers fight unions with strike breaking, spies, private detectives, and outright violence on frequent occasions. Unions fight back wit
Dec 23, 2011 Barney rated it really liked it
Ohhhhhhhh man! If the current folks complaining about President Obama being a Socialist could read this book! Not only does Eugene Debs make an appearance...but so does Big Bill Haywood! Awesome! The text focuses on the Oct 1, 1910 destruction of the LA Times building. It seems that the building was blown up using dynamite, killing 21 people. This is one of those events that I had no idea about.

The text is a story of three people: William Burns, Clarance Darrow and D.W. Griffith. Burns was the o
Mar 03, 2013 Diane rated it did not like it
While this book promises to shed light on the birth of Hollywood and a crime of the century, it fails in quite significant ways. The author weaves three narratives together: the detective work of Billy Burns to solve a bombing in Los Angeles, the efforts of Clarence Darrow to defend the bombers, and the nascent film work of D.W. Griffith. But the attempt to link these three fails because Griffith had precious little to do with the other men, and nothing to do with the bombing or its aftermath. H ...more
Oct 01, 2011 Jan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I honestly cannot believe that this book doesn't have a higher rating on here. This is one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in a very long time.

Ostensibly about the 1910 bombing of the LA Times building (which killed 21 people), it plays out more like a "whodunit." Blum interweaves the story of three famous men - William J. Burns, "America's Sherlock Holmes," the private detective hired to catch the bomber; Clarence Darrow, the "peoples' lawyer" who was hired to defend the men accu
Jul 13, 2009 Sjo rated it liked it
Shelves: 2009
Written in quasi novel style, this is about one of the original acts of domestic terrorism in the US when the LA Times building was blown to bits in 1910 killing 21 people and injuring many more. In covering this event, Howard Blum weaves a great detective story featuring the "American Sherlock Holmes" William J Burns around the twin pillars of the rise of Hollywood and the escalation of the violence between capital and labor that gripped the early 20th century (The Soviet Union revolutoin would ...more
Oct 09, 2016 Tony rated it liked it
Shelves: history
AMERICAN LIGHTNING. (2008). Howard Blum. ***.
Mr. Blum has quite a list of history books under his belt. Most of them, according to other reviews, were written in the popular narrative style – kind of like a newspaper would use, though I can’t say for sure what newspaper – and all have sold well. This book was an Edgar Award winner for Best Non-Fiction. It’s subject is the destruction of the ‘Times’ newspaper building in Los Angeles, with the attendant death of 21 people. I was not aware of the s
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 personaliti

Fred Theobald
Nov 29, 2008 Fred Theobald rated it it was ok
I have finished "American Lightning". It is an interesting book, but not a great read. The history, more than the mystery, is what kept me reading. It is a fascinating tale that had an impact on film and the lives of those involved. I am always amazed at how a person's life is impacted and directed by the events, and if one little thing had gone differently, how that person's life may have twisted and turned in a different direction. This book makes one wonder about how history may have been dif ...more
Argh argh arrrrgh. Fascinating true-life story (actually two fascinating true-life stories that never really mesh); horrible, repetitious, overwrought writing style; poorly sourced because the author doesn't think extensive sourcing is necessary in a popular history. In the afterword, the author compares himself to a gray wolf. WHAT. EVER.
Sep 15, 2009 Bill rated it it was ok
The build-up and the crime investigation were really interesting. The end result of what actually did happen to this "crime of the century" was beyond disappointing. And his throwing D.W. Griffith into the storyline felt more than a bit forced.
Jerry Smith
Dec 08, 2016 Jerry Smith rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, crime, 2016-read
A most interesting read and one that had been on my list for a while and suddenly became available at the library. This historical account is written much like a lengthy and well constructed novel, that is to say the narrative weaves together several strands and a number of key protagonists in the telling of the story. In this case those threads involve Clarence Darrow, DW Griffith and Billy Burns. The first and last of these I understand but Griffith seems a little more tenuous to me, but certa ...more
Thomas Paul
Nov 18, 2011 Thomas Paul rated it really liked it
In 1910 there were a series of explosions across the country. Some believed the bombings were the work of anarchists while others thought they were more likely caused by workers in the fight between the working class and capitalists. The bombings were destructive but bloodless until October 1, 1910 when 21 employees of the Los Angeles Times were killed when an explosion ripped through their building. But was it the work of angry workers or company owners hoping to blame the unions? Enter Billy B ...more
Jun 09, 2010 Jennie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I think of the great battlefields of labor vs. the bosses, Los Angeles isn't even on my list. Yet here comes American Lightning, an absolutely fascinating story of a bombing, a manhunt, and a trial - with the bitter war between labor and management at its heart.

If I'm being picky, the one flaw in this book is Blum's inclusion of D.W. Griffith, the early filmmaker. Blum attempts to connect Griffith to the bombing case by making his work a product of these times, but I found his efforts to be
Nov 09, 2008 Rose rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Rick
The nucleus of Pulitzer Prize finalist Howard Blum's 'American Lightning' is the October 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles 'Times' building. From that one act of terrorism a story is spawned that includes legendary detective William J. Burns, defense attorney extraordinaire Clarence Darrow, and the early twentieth century's greatest motion picture director, D.W. Griffith. Mary Pickford even puts in an appearance. Burns works to bring the 'Times' bombers to justice, Darrow eventually steps in to sa ...more
Bill Wallace
Feb 05, 2015 Bill Wallace rated it liked it
A good tale told unevenly. Sketchy by turns, imperfectly documented, and oddly conceived, American Lightning still manages to be a fair account of events in the second decade of the 20th Century. The problem with the book is that its two primary subjects, the explosion that destroyed the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 along with the investigation and trials that followed and DW Griffith's decision to move his film making from New York to Los Angeles are so tenuously connected that the author ...more
Jan 08, 2009 Kenny rated it liked it
American Lightning revolves around what was then known as the "crime of the century", the bombing of the L.A.Times building in 1910. Blum focuses on three figures of that period: Detective Bobby Burns, attorney Clarence Darrow, and filmmaker D.W. Griffith. The first two are directly involved in the events, while Griffith was merely an emerging cultural figure of the time. The structure of the narrative and the way Blum treats these "characters" makes for a very entertaining read. However, the ma ...more
Blain Masterson
Mar 18, 2016 Blain Masterson rated it it was amazing
This is a continuation of Gangland, I accidentally added the review when I was not finished.
I recommend this book to anyone who has even a finite interest in mob life, government surveillance, police activity, or an interest in the FBI and Organized Crime Task Forces. I picked up this book almost as a second thought off of a shelf at home and found it hard to put down. For me, someone who doesn't always enjoy reading, this book was an exception. The story follows both Gotti and Mouws efforts to
Sigrid Ellis
I liked the start of the book better than the finish. The start was strong and dramatic, but once the trial was underway it sort of trailed off. I think that has little to do with the quality of the writing and everything to do with the fact that the actual events petered out undramatically. Still, I liked learning about these events. I liked the characters and characterizations, and I liked the initial drama.

That said -- I think connecting D.W. Griffith to the story of the bombing was a bit of
The story of the 1910 bombing of the LA Times building, the investigation, and the arrest and trial of the perpetrators, and how it ties into early filmmaking in the US. I've gotta say, my sympathies are wont to lean towards labor in these situations until you read about how they felt like it was totally okay to use dynamite to make their points, and bribery and threats to witnesses to cover it all up.

Anyway, it's a compelling story and it's interesting to read about how forensics and movie maki
Feb 03, 2012 Bobbi rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Generallly a good, fast-paced read. I had no idea about the "crime of the century", although since it occurred in 1910 I guess there wasn't much competition at that time. The portrait of Darrow that emerged was certainly not the impression that everyone has of him. Billy Burns emerges as a somewhat scurrilous character, but 1910 was a different time and place. It was amazing that he was able to "direct" the police as he proceeded in his investigation. Not great literature, but fun to read.
Feb 09, 2009 Larry rated it it was ok
The story looked very promising, I'm always ready for a non-fiction detective story, or some good history. Though he makes no secret of his intent to mesh the stories of three big men of the time, it seems to me that DW Griffith's story is forced in.

I will definitely read more about Darrow, his persona grabbed me here and I want to dig deeper.
More reviews available at my blog, Beauty and the Bookworm.

Okay, I'm going to come out and say it: this book was kind of a drag. Especially for a book that promises to be about "Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century." Ostensibly, it's about the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, the bombings that came before and after it, the hunt for the criminals, the trial...and a guy who makes movies? What? Where the connection? Well, here's the answer: there isn't one
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Howard Blum is the author of New York Times bestsellers including Dark Invasion, the Edgar Award–winner American Lightning, as well as Wanted!, The Gold Exodus, Gangland, and The Floor of Heaven. Blum is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. While at the New York Times, he was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He is the father of three children, and lives in Connect ...more
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“For at the beginning of the twentieth century, the nation had been struggling to find its way. Terror had raged, a second civil war had threatened to split the nation into new feuding armies, and the inequities of industrial life had brutalized too many lives. Three men who were caught up in those traumatic times, shaped by them, found with their talents, energy, and ideals a way out of it, both for themselves and for the nation. Darrow, Billy, D.W. were all flawed - egotists, temperamental, and too often morally complacent. But as their careers and lives intersected in Los Angeles at the tail end of the first decade of the twentieth century, each in his own way helped to move America into the modern world. They were individuals willing to fight for their beliefs; and the legacy of their battles, their cultural and political brawls, remains part of our national consciousness.” 2 likes
“anarchists were perceptive when they argued that government was evil because it reined in individual liberties.” 0 likes
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