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American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie Making and the Crime of the Century

Howard Blum, Author . Crown $24.95 (339p) ISBN 978-0-307-34694-0

In 1911, Iron Workers Union leaders James and Joseph McNamara plea-bargained in exchange for prison sentences instead of death after bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times —killing 21 people and wounding many more. The bombing had been part of a bungled assault on some 100 American cities. After the McNamaras went to jail, Clarence Darrow, their defense attorney, wound up indicted for attempting to bribe the jury, but won acquittal after a defense staged by the brilliant Earl Rogers. The McNamaras were investigated by William J. Burns—near legendary former Secret Service agent and proprietor of a detective agency. Surprisingly, Burns’s collaborator in the investigation was silent film director D.W. Griffith. This tangled and fascinating tale is the stuff of novels, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Blum (The Brigade ) tells it with a novelist’s flair. In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Blum paints his characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them—and their era—come alive. Blum’s prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive—all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 06/09/2008
Release date: 09/01/2008
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