American Terrorism, 1910-Style

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American Lightning by Howard Blum.

American Lighting: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood and the Crime of the Century
By Howard Blum
Crown; 352 pp.

The Gist:
In October 1910, a bomb ripped apart the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, killing 21. The paper, at the center of a "you must take sides" conflict between labor and capitalism (the broadsheet's owner, publisher and editor, Harrison Gray Otis, detested the former) quickly blamed union terrorists. Interweaving the tales of Billy Burns, a private detective known as the "American Sherlock Holmes," famed attorney Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, and filmmaker D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation, Blum attempts to weave an early twentieth century murder mystery.

Highlight Reel:
1. On Otis, the gruff Times owner: "The riots, were, he firmly believed, only the opening salvo in a war that would not be over until the unions were driven out of Los Angeles. Compromise would be surrender. Rather than negotiate, he prepared for new battles. He now called himself "General." He christened his sprawling home "The Bivouac." He mounted a cannon on the hood of his limousine and made sure his chauffeur was prepared to repel, at his command, any enemy attacks. He modeled the paper's new printing plant on a fanciful vision of an impregnable fortress, complete with battlements, sentry boxes, and firing holes offering protected lines of fire at any mob that dared to storm his citadel."

2. Following the bombing of the Times building: "The first person to rush to the scene was a man wearing a woman's floral dress and a blond wig. Los Angeles police detective Eddie King had been working an undercover detail that night trying to catch the Boyle Heights rapist. Throughout the summer, the rapist had been targeting women in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, and the police, with no clues and conflicting descriptions of the assailant, had decided to bait a trap with a decoy. But king, a hulking six-footer crammed into a tentlike dress and wearing a garish blond wig that barely covered his thick neck, had attracted only incredulous stares."

3. On a 1909 Los Angeles mayoral election: "A progressive 'Good Government' coalition — popularly, and a bit derisively, known as the Goo Goos — had nominated George Alexander, a former city supervisor. "Honest Uncle George" campaigned dressed up as Uncle Sam on a moralistic reform platform that promised to rid the freewheeling city of gamblers, prostitutes, and even the bewilderingly popular blind pig races."

The Lowdown:
It's easy to call something the "crime of the century" if said century is only a decade old. What Blum doesn't seem to realize, though, is that repeating the phrase "crime of the century" two dozen times doesn't actually make it so — there are 90 years to go, brother. In the grand scheme of things, the bombing of the Times building is a fairly minor incident that has resulted in a fairly minor book.

Aside from a glut of straight up banal sentences — "Biddinger's great talent, Billy knew, was that at any sudden moment he could drop his easy friendliness, let his dark eyes narrow into two slits like gun holes, and turn mean." (Slits like gun holes?) — one of Blum's three main characters, D.W. Griffith, doesn't even really belong in the book. Despite Blum's best efforts to incorporate the director, Griffith plays no part in the crime, investigation or subsequent court case. The book's epilogue, in which Griffith, Darrow, and Burns briefly walk by each other in a hotel lobby, is a stretch of the most limber sort. As is the attempt to link the bombing and the investigation's illegal detention of suspects to post-9/11 concerns. This could have made a fine story story for Vanity Fair, where Blum is a contributing editor.

The Verdict: Toss