Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.
Although I have some narrative quibbles with this book, I did find the subject matter and the reflections of present day issues quite fascinating. AMERICAN LIGHTNING explores the the bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building on October 1, 1910. A crime referred to at the time as "The Crime of the Century." (Little did anyone know the horrors that were still to befall that then-nascent century.) The massive explosion blasted printing machines, men, and building materials. When the dust settled and the hospital triage units were consulted, twenty-one people were dead and dozens more injured. And that was just the beginning. The Los Angeles Times owner was rabidly anti-union and through this crime and the subsequent trial, the labor vs capitalist waged war in the streets -- a wave of terrorist bombing crossed the country.
Famous detective Billy J. Burns (a sort of American Sherlock Holmes already world famous for solving unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises) was called in to investigate. He's a charismatic figure, although flawed, and an interesting character to follow. Over months of stakeouts, disguises, infiltration and forensic sleuthing, Burns identified two labor activists he believed were responsible and he accused the men of not just the LA Times bombing, but of being part of the nation-wide terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.
Woven through this narrative are two others -- that of famous lawyer Clarence Darrow who ultimately defends the accused, and ground-breaking filmmaker D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation). Alas, Darrow's story is confined more to his romantic problems than his extraordinary legal career. And D.W. Griffith, although a mesmerizing genius (and a bit of a rogue), is not developed, I felt, as much as he might have been.
Although, as I said, there are flaws in the book, what kept me interested were the similarities between the present and the past. The talk of terrorist conspiracies, the bombings, the political polemics, the antagonism of unions vs capitalists, the manipulation of the public through the press. . . we never seem to learn from the past, do we? And yet that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying.