Jenn's Reviews > American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood & the Crime of the Century

American Lightning by Howard Blum
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Jul 06, 12

bookshelves: bought-2011, non-fiction, mystery, read-2012
Read from July 03 to 05, 2012

Two-thirds of this book held my attention very well: these were the intertwined plot lines describing the intersections of master detective Billy Burns and master lawyer Clarence Darrow around the case of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times.

The book's major mystery is, in fact, surrounding this case: in October of 1910, an explosion at the L.A. Times downtown office killed 21 people, and further bombings around the country followed in an episode of domestic terrorism that's largely been forgotten by now. The bombing took place while the Times was railing against organized labor, and so suspicion fell immediately onto their labor opponents -- who charged, just as believably, that the Times and its manufacturing/open shop supporters had set up the violence to frame them.

Although by halfway through the book, the answer to the "whodunnit" is clear, it takes most of the book before the consequences are apparently. I liked reading about Burns's investigation -- both the strong, smart leaps he and his detective corps made and the ruthless pursuit of their criminals. The parts about Darrow were equally compelling, as he's pictured here mostly as a man who is barely able to hold up his head, struggling with inner and outer demons, drawn back into the arena of grand argument so reluctantly that he nearly loses everything (again).

Blume does well to set the scene in the nation, and particularly L.A., at this time, so the stakes of Labor v. Management are well established. The city seems on the verge of riot and despair throughout, which usually makes the case more interesting.

Yet the book didn't, in the end, completely live up to its promise. The subtitle is "Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century." Terror and Mystery are covered in the investigation of this Crime of the Century. The Birth of Hollywood is covered through the third strand of the plot: a biographical discussion of the film director D.W. Griffith. Only at the start of the book and at its end does Griffith cross path with the other two major characters, and then, the meetings are completely incidental. He has no active part in the investigation, nor does anyone he know have an active part. His story is meant to be a parallel to the others', to serve as a specific example of the way that the expansion of cinema at this time influenced popular opinions in a new and exciting way.

That same example, though, could have been built without Griffith as a "character" here. The long stretches spent describing his bizarre behaviors -- for instance, terrorizing young women on the sets of his films to provoke emotional reactions, then sleeping with them, despite their minor status -- distract from the rest of the story. When, at the end, there's no grander purpose to knowing that Griffith was a womanizing visionary, I was frustrated with all the time I'd had to spend in his oily company.

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