Wednesday, November 26, 2008

American Lightning by Howard Blum

The Players:

William "Billy" Burns: destined to be the first director of the FBI.

Clarence Darrow: destined to be known as, possibly, the greatest trial lawyer in American history.

D.W. Griffith: destined to direct the first true motion picture epic.

In American Lightning, author Howard Blum interweaves two years in the lives of these three men, brought together by an all but forgotten moment in history. The 1910, early morning bombing of the L.A. Times office building, that killed an estimated 21 men.

Mr. Blum is able to bring this story together in a way that reads almost as a fictional story. He uses his extensive research of newspaper articles and autobiographies of the men involved and those involved in their lives to access actual dialogue during what at the time was "The Crime of the Century".

But, lest you think Burns, Darrow and Griffith are the only players, there is a deeper story in these pages.

We know the What? When? Where? and How? of this crime. The unanswered questions are Who? and Why?

Who?: J.J. McNamara and his very loyal brother Jim McNamara, among others.

Why?: Socialists vs. Capitalists

Unions were at their height. Men working for and fighting against the business owners in order to feed their families and own a bit of the American dream. It seemed a time when the rich were getting richer and the middle class was loosing ground.

And this takes us to an even deeper story in American Lightning. The parallels of this particular time period and this specific crime to America today. Blum doesn't hit the reader over the head with this apparent show of "history repeating itself", but it's a hard theme to miss. He does go into complete detail in his final entry, "A Note On Sources". The author explains this far more eloquently than I could ever hope, so I'll not try.

All that said, this is also a very entertaining book.

Detective William Burns is a character, in the truest sense of the word. He is a man who has no compunction when it comes to the blurring of legal lines if it means the difference between getting or not getting his man, or his money, or his fame.

Attorney Clarence Darrow is an unusually depressed man, seemingly always on the side of the underdog and fighting to exhaustion even if he doesn't entirely agree with the circumstances.

Film-maker D.W. Griffith, having resentfully fallen into moving pictures, is a lecherous man, to but it kindly, who spared no time in making the absolute most of what he believed was a terrible situation.

In the end, American Lightning is a book well worth the read for the purpose of both entertainment and education.

Title: American Lightning
Author: Howard Blum
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-307-34694-0

1 comment:

JK said...

You sold me -- this one's been on my "should I or shouldn't I" list for awhile, now it will be checked out... thanks!