Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lightning strikes

This has been a good year for narrative histories. In April we got Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (a case that inspired the birth of detective fiction) and in May came Paula Uruburu's American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century (which undertook to look at Nesbit's life, loves and the murder of architect Sanford White).

For those with a penchant of reading crime and history (a la Devil in the White City) comes a new entrant: American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-making, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum (Crown Forum, $24.95). Yes, C
rime of the Century appears in this title also; since the Sanford White case was in 1906, it was the first Crime of the Century, but the century was very, very young.

In American
Lightning, Pulitzer Prize-winner Blum brings together numerous threads to weave a tapestry of America in the first decade of the 20th Century. In October of 1910, an explosion ripped through the offices of the Los Angeles Times, killing 23 workers. It was the culmination in a series of attacks that gripped the nation. This was a time of bomb-throwing anarchist, and war between labor and management. Detective William J. Burns, dubbed the "American Sherlock Holmes" by the Times of London, is brought in from Chicago to investigate. Was it union assassins or management goons who blew the building up? Before CSI, how did a detective work such a huge case? Burns' doggedness uncovers a nest of villains, but his success seems short lived as land swindlers, a mayoral election and the American labor movement muddy the waters.

Into this melting pot of players come filmmaker D.W. Griffith and attorney Clarence Darrow. Blum interlaces their lives through the investigation and trial, chronicling Griffith's rise, Darrow's fall and the birth of public relations.

American Lightning is a fascinating exploration of the birth of 20th century America, and it will be a welcome addition to any non-fiction lover's bookshelf.

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