I am the type of reader that reads fiction most of the time. It's books like this (like Erik Larsen and his brilliant The Devil in the White City) which remind me that truth is much stranger, and many times much more interesting, than fiction.
The full title of this true crime non-fiction book is American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century. A fitting and dramatic title of results following the terrorist attack on the building of the Los Angeles Times on October 1, 1910. In the months that followed, the war between capital and labor was brought to the forefront in not just the world of case-making and detection, but in legal battles in the courthouse, and with silent film and the birth of Hollywood. Three men would become involved in the "crime of the century," either directly or on the periphery of the labor movement, at the time in America's history when unions and capitalists were battling for victory.
As the dust was settling on the collapse of the building that housed the plant supporting the Los Angeles Times, it was discovered that at least twenty-one people, if they had survived the explosion, had subsequently perished in a horrible and suffocating fire. It was a terrorist attack of paramount proportions and the city of Los Angeles was left reeling, searching for an answer and looking for help. The city didn't expect that history would be made yet again.
- Billy Burns, a world-famous detective often compared to America's version of the fictional Sherlock Holmes, was hired by the Mayor to find the perpetrators.
- Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer who fought for the poor, would represent the culprits.
- And the infamous D.W. Griffith, the man whose talents as a filmmaker and initiator of the eventual land of Hollywood, would forever be overshadowed by a sweeping epic movie of racism.
What follows is Howard Blum's readable and effective narrative of the "crime of the century." Put simply, it is non-fiction that is actually interesting. Easy to understand. And most importantly, generates the type of enthusiasm for a reader to research more. I spent my night looking up pictures and reading annotated papers...
I was caught up in the story and fascinated by the early fights and battles between the unionists and capitalists. Granted, I know enough about that history to answer a question here or there in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but for the most part, it's a fairly foreign history for me and I regret that. Howard Blum's book has motivated me to read more non-fiction. While we all know bribery and corruption exists, it's always fascinating to read how casual and accepted it can be. And public displays of dramatic behavior? Who better than a brash bruiser of a detective and an alcoholic lawyer later in history to get into a public fist-fight in a courthouse? I can just imagine the dramatics of the time, the flurry of reporters rushing to phone booths to put their story in. I need to read more about this time, no excuses.
The only subjects I wanted more information about were the Alexandria Hotel and the journalist Mary Field. The hotel just seemed majestic and fascinating. I love design from the turn of the century and the face of the city as told by its buildings. The Alexandria Hotel was *the* place where everyone who was anyone stayed, which I found intriguing. I wanted to feel the luxury of it more, and I wanted to get a better sense of how it could ironically fit into the landscape of this war between capital and labor. It certainly was the complete representation of all things rich. How D.W. Griffith and Clarence Darrow could stay in such splendor when they were apparent advocates of the poor and downtrodden struck me as bizarre. I could completely appreciate that Billy Burns would stay there; after all, he never made any pretense about his enjoyment of fame and money. But, it just struck me as odd for the other two, most especially for Darrow, then Griffith, I guess. Griffith told the stories of the downtrodden only to serve his own purposes of achieving fame. But Darrow?
And what about Mary Field's history? Mary Field was a journalist in the early 1900s, who covered stories near and far from New York. A successful female journalist in the 1900s! To me, that is exciting. I wanted more. Instead, that seemed to be less interesting compared to the fact that she was Clarence Darrow's lover and confidante. A shame to not explore her backstory, even just a few pages more. (I couldn't find a picture of her anywhere, so I included the actress Mary Pickford, who was Griffith's muse.)
|Griffith's muse, actress Mary Pickford|
Even for those minor moments, the true core of the story kept me motivated to pick up the book at each break and evening. For those who read much quicker, you'll finish it easily in a day. Howard Blum does not dive into confusing moments with too many annoying words getting in the way of the actual story; in that, he's like a modern-day Hemingway. It is what it is and he will not extrapolate ridiculously to flower up the language to tell you what happened. (Kinda like what I did in that sentence, huh?)
I enjoyed this book and I suspect that those who enjoy true crime and non-fiction will enjoy it, too. I'll definitely pick up his other books, which are listed below.
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Release Date: 2008
FTC Disclosure: Straight off my bookshelf.
About the Author
Howard Blum is the author of the New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner American Lightning, as well as such bestselling books as Wanted!, The Gold Exodus, and Gangland. He is currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. While at the New York Times, he was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The Floor of Heaven: A True Story of the Old West and the Yukon Gold Rush was released in April 2011. Twentieth Century Fox is developing FLOOR as a major motion picture.
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