17 May 2012

American Lightning, by Howard Blum

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.

Alexandria Hotel
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
And while I thought D.W. Griffith was definitely an important part of movie history, for all of his eclectic and egomaniacal ways, I thought the subject of his most known and epic film that cost so much money seemed a bit glossed over in the description of how racist it was. Cinematic talent, sure, but D.W. Griffith certainly etched himself in history as representative of early preconceptions and stereotypes, inflaming audiences with even more discrimination and depicting the Ku Klux Klan with a "fairytale" gallantry. It was easy to see that Howard Blum is by trade a reporter, so he definitely retains his objectivity, but I wanted something to be included that showed how, while Griffith's film-making was ahead of its time, it still continues to affect us today when we watch its blatant disregard for real history.

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
Pages: 321

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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  1. Great, compelling review! I too loved The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, and I absolutely adore nonfic that makes me Google like a madwoman. Plus, American history and film? Heck yeah. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. There is nothing like a wonderful non-fiction book, particular a true crime, to just light my hair on fire. Written well, it can grip me as no fiction can. I have to Google pictures and learn as much as I can. It sounds like this book had that effect on you and I bet it would me too. Great review! I'm intrigued!

  3. Non-fiction that is written to be accessible can be fascinating. I do find it interesting that advocates for the poor live in splendor - then and now. I'm adding this book to my wish list.

  4. Most of the time I stick to fiction, like you, but I think I could make an exception for this one! I love the old Hollywood/noir feel that it sounds like the story creates. The fact that the author "does not dive into confusing moments with too many annoying words" makes me want to pick it up. Simply written narrative non-fiction is the way to go.

  5. I definitely need to read more nonfiction, and this one along with Devil in the White City have really intrigued me as of late. I can just see you googling away, looking for more information on this book. It does sound like an intriguing read, and one that offers readers a bevy of information to chew on. This was an excellent review today, and now I have another nonfiction recommendation to add to my list. To tell you the truth, that list is pretty short, so I am always looking for some great nonfiction to plump it up!

  6. Oooooooooooh, I need to get this book -- I don't read a ton of non-fiction, but I do love books like that, that are almost novelistic in their telling. My wife adored Devil in a White City so the comparison to that is very promising!

  7. I have this at home from the library right now. I'd never heard of it before, but I thought it looked interesting.

  8. A really great review, I don't read nearly enough non-fiction. One of the best non-fiction books I've read in a while is How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran. It completely redefined feminism for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hoping to read much more non-fiction in the near future.

  9. I don't read much nonfiction either, but this one sounds fantastic. Another I add to the list of excellent nonfiction is Donald H. Wolfe. He is an amazing writer. I've requested this one from the library and think it may make excellent plane reading when I head to LA next month;-)

    Also, clearly I've only been reading in my Google Reader and not commenting lately because I don't remember seeing this new blog design. I love it!

  10. I loved 'The Devil in the White City' ... this sounds just as intriguing! Great review!

  11. This sounds so awesome. Thanks for mentioning it on my blog so I knew to look for it. I can't wait to find a copy for myself.