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AMERICAN LIGHTNING by Howard Blum Kirkus Star


Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century

by Howard Blum

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-307-34694-0
Publisher: Crown

Two-time Pulitzer nominee Blum (The Eve of Destruction, 2003, etc.) cinematically explores the 1910 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building.

The fierce fighting between labor and capital at the turn of the 20th century was especially intense in Los Angeles. Times publisher Otis Chandler was a bitter opponent of unions. Brothers J.J. and J.B. McNamara, both labor activists, were involved in a nationwide terror campaign that culminated in the firebombing of the Times headquarters and 21 deaths. Summoned west to solve the case, the country’s most famous detective, William J. Burns, spent six months investigating and then arrested the McNamaras and a confederate, Ortie McManigal, who promptly confessed. Clarence Darrow, the era’s foremost defense attorney, reluctantly undertook the McNamaras’ defense. In luminous detail, Blum interweaves the stories of Burns and Darrow, leaving room for memorable walk-ons by labor leader Samuel Gompers, flamboyant attorney Earl Rogers, movie star Mary Pickford and muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. Remarkably enough, Steffens’s pro-labor battle cry—“justifiable dynamiting”—actually helped fashion a plea bargain in the case, whose political and economic ramifications were too great for either side to stomach an outright loss. The relevance to this drama of Blum’s third major character, pioneering filmmaker D.W. Griffith, is not immediately apparent. Eventually, however, the author justifies Griffith’s role in his text by demonstrating how the director’s early films moved progressively toward the sort of socially important statement the McNamara case in all its dimensions embodied. The nascent motion-picture industry, Blum suggests, could capture in a new and powerful way the staggering cultural dimensions of this political and legal brawl. The author’s eye for scene-setting and subtle explication perfectly mimics a Griffith-style camera. Blum is at his best when exploring the motivations, the genius and the deep flaws of his three principals, men who occupied the same room only once in their lives, but who are memorably linked in this book.

Unfailingly entertaining.