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American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century | [Howard Blum]

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century

It was an explosion that reverberated across the country - and into the very heart of early-20th-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, 21 people were declared dead and dozens more injured.
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Publisher's Summary

It was an explosion that reverberated across the country - and into the very heart of early-20th-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, 21 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' fiercely anti-union owner - of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.

Simultaneously offering the absorbing listening 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.

©2008 Howard Blum; (P)2008 Random House, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"This is a wonderful story, with a cast of characters out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, told in a style that is lucid, lyrical, even electric. Narrative history at its very best." (Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers and American Creation)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

3.6 (114 )
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3.8 (43 )
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  •  
    D. Littman OH 11-28-08
    D. Littman OH 11-28-08 Member Since 2003

    history buff

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "very interesting popular history"

    OK, this is not serious, footnoted analytical history, of the kind I like to read (or tell myself "it is good for me"), but that kind of history doesn't often lend itself to good audio-listening. American Lightning does. It recovers the biography of the Burns detective agency, a story I did not know, it does a nice recounting of the wave of "anarchist" and organized labor bombings of symbols of capitalism in the first decade of the 20th century, including how famed lawyer Clarence Darrow got intertwined with it. And it (less successfully) incorporates the roots of the modern movie business in New York & S California in that period too.

    The book is well-written & very well-read. It passes by as if effortlessly as an audiobook, although I suspect it would be more annoying to read due to some of its organizational jumpiness.

    I recommend it very highly. Both for itself and, if it tickles your interest further, in directing the reader to learn more about the three protagonists in other books elsewhere.

    22 of 23 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Legally Bored Seattle, WA 09-03-09
    Legally Bored Seattle, WA 09-03-09 Member Since 2008
    HELPFUL VOTES
    23
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    "Enjoyable, but might need to read it instead"

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story, as I am partial to several of its features: Holmesian detective work, stories about trials, early 20th-century American history, silent films, etc. Something interesting was always going on.
    However, at times the plot is kind of hard to follow when listening. When the detecting kicks into high gear, it would be nice to have the chance to reread paragraphs instead of constantly rewinding on the iPod.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joseph Australia 10-31-13
    Joseph Australia 10-31-13 Member Since 2002
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    "I found the secret!"

    I found this book to be quite compelling. The parallel stories of three men: D. W. Griffith, the pioneering American film director. William Burns, the private detective. And attorney Clarence Darrow. Their lives intersect around the bombing of the L.A. Times newspaper in 1910, which was called “the crime of the century” (until of course, the next “crime of the century” came along 22 years later, when Charles Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped).

    These three very different men provide us with a personal view of the huge changes taking place in America during this turbulent time. The story kept me interested and fed my curiosity.

    I almost gave up on this book, however, because of the narrator’s style. I found that nearly every sentence was read with such drama that I continually wondered if I had missed something. The good news is that I discovered a solution that made the book much more enjoyable. I increased the speed of the narration to 1.25x the original and found it condensed those dramatic pauses to a point where the story worked; at least for me.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ted Lancaster, PA, United States 10-19-11
    Ted Lancaster, PA, United States 10-19-11 Member Since 2010

    Don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Trip's cool though. Use Audible to make gym-training sane... And rip my imagination.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "What is this thing?"

    Hmmm.... maybe this is an historical novel? Maybe it is a true crime? Maybe it wants, at the end, to apologize for playing it straight down the middle for a lot of the first three quarters of the book. It started out well enuf... got reeeeeeely slow around the middle and that ending... what was that thing? Couldn't possibly finish that mire. I'll not buy another Howard Blum and the book's attraction to award judges is totally puzzling.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kelly FORT WORTH, TX, United States 09-24-10
    Kelly FORT WORTH, TX, United States 09-24-10 Member Since 2009
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    "Not bad but..."

    The stories are pretty good and give a lot of insight into some really interesting historical occurrences. I don't feel the author did a very good job at tying everything together. It seemed really forced and without closure.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    WriterGirl Washington, D.C. 09-28-08
    WriterGirl Washington, D.C. 09-28-08 Member Since 2003

    WriterGirl

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    "Terrorism Existed in US Long Before 9/11"

    This is a story that would have been received differently prior to Sept 11, 2001. In the first half the author presents parallel two stories: DW Griffith, filmaker, and Billy Byrnes, private detective. In the second half, the personal and public battles rage around the allegedly illegal arrests and trials of the perpetrators of the 1910 LA Times bombing. The story drags in some spots but they are few. The reader has a nice voice and reads well.

    8 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    LeakyB 02-19-12
    LeakyB 02-19-12
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    "Not an easy listen"

    This history of three famous personas is interesting, but the author goes a bit too far at times in attributing thoughts and feelings to the characters. Sometimes it's armchair psychology (e.g., the feelings of Billy Burns' son Raymond with respect to his father), sometimes it's just stretching to make the characters seem more real. The author also makes excuses for the womanizing of Darrow, as if to make him a more sympathetic character, but not for Griffin. So we get more than history in the author's attempt to make this an interesting read.

    But whether you think the story is interesting or not, you will have to get used to the narrator's style. If you listen to the Audible edition of the NY Times, you may have a sense of this style -- like he's reading the news. Every once in a while, he throws in a slight bit of emotion or accented speech, but it's pretty blase. Nothing personal -- just that I have gotten used to some very talented narrators here on Audible and this didn't come close. It makes it harder to pay attention to what he's reading.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    R POLLOCK PINES, CA, United States 12-10-12
    R POLLOCK PINES, CA, United States 12-10-12 Member Since 2011
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    "Enjoyable"

    I really found this audible enjoyable. The writer was great in telling the story from many points of views. Even with the variety of viewpoint storytelling the book was never lacking!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Maura 03-17-09
    Maura 03-17-09
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    5
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    "Lightweight"

    This is an entertaining story but as a piece of history writing I found it very lightweight. Trying to tie the three main characters together was contrived and a lot of what was presented as fact struck me as likely the author's opinion or supposition rather than hard evidence.

    2 of 6 people found this review helpful
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