2010: 37. American Lightning

“As the detective made his way along a bustling Fourteenth Street in New York City on that late December day in 1910, he was confident that, after a frustrating month in Los Angeles, he was at least closing in on one murderer.”

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery & The Birth of Hollywood, Howard Blum

           There seems to be a new genre of books, ever since Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, in which the author combines a true crime story with some other historical event, and tries to convince us that the two are connected.  So far, neither Larson (who also did it with his Marconi/Crippen book) nor Blum have convinced me that the two events really have enough to do with each other to justify them being told in one story - instead it seems like two interesting things yoked together to sell a book.  

       Anyway, here Blum tells us about a spectacular crime - anarchists blowing up the LA newspaper building, and how it drew in the greatest detective of the time William J. Burns, the greatest lawyer, Clarence Darrow, and the greatest filmmaker, DW Griffiths.  Except the Griffiths stuff seemed barely part of the same story - I guess Blum thought that the Hollywood angle was sexy, but I felt like Griffiths was shoehorned into what was a pretty exciting tale without him.  The story of the anarchists, and solving the crime and the eventual trial, and all that was so interesting - with a nice parallel to our modern times (the shadow of 9/11 looms), that the Hollywood stuff seemed like a distraction.  That, combined with the fact that the story is better than the writing (or maybe I am just super picky about non-fiction, but a lot of the popular stuff I read lately leaves me sorely disappointed.  The historical stories are so good, and the writing seems so sloppy.  Boo.), leaves me unable to whole-heartedly recommend the book, but if you like true crime and American history, and if you have any interest in Clarence Darrow, or the labor movement or anarchy, this is pretty good.  Not perfect, but entertaining, and something I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.


Date/Place Completed:  April 2010; Flying to Ireland

Categories:  Non-Fiction

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017