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Jonathan Yardley on 'American Lightning'

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 28, 2008

AMERICAN LIGHTNING

Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making, and the Crime of the Century

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By Howard Blum

Crown. 339 pp. $24.95

One of the bloodiest and most spectacular American crimes of the 20th century took place in October 1910, when a series of explosions ripped through the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people and doing extensive damage. The attack occurred at a time when the country generally and California in particular were torn by a variety of conflicts, many having to do with labor and capital, and the press took the attack as symptomatic. For a while it was known as "the crime of the century," but the century was young, and eventually many others came along to compete for that dubious distinction.

The crime and its aftermath make for a compelling story, but you'd scarcely know that from this dreadful book, a thoroughgoing dud from first page to last. Howard Blum, a freelance reporter and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, claims that what he has written is "more a narrative, an expansive and hopefully dramatic and resonating story about the past, than a historian's narrow, fact-laden tome," but in truth what he's written (and written badly, as that misuse of "hopefully" suggests) is a piece of hack journalism that attempts to fabricate connections between three interesting men of the day but almost entirely fails to do so. My own hunch is that Blum thinks he's written a nonfiction variation on the themes played in E.L. Doctorow's celebrated novel Ragtime, but such magic as Doctorow managed to extract from the same point in American history is utterly absent in this contrived, plodding, self-infatuated "tome."

The three men are William J. Burns, head of the Burns National Detective Agency, anointed by the New York Times as "the greatest detective certainly, and perhaps the only really great detective, the only detective of genius whom the country has produced"; D. W. Griffith, who by 1910 "had directed nearly two hundred short films" and was soon to achieve greatness (and notoriety) with "The Birth of a Nation"; and Clarence Darrow, "the country's famous crusading attorney, the champion of populist (and often lost) causes." Cranking up his cliché machine, writing so overheatedly that the reader's eyes are scorched, Blum intones:

"All three men would be caught up in 'the crime of the century,' the mystery, and the trial that followed. And in that swirl of events, three men, each deeply flawed, each goaded by a powerful ego, each in his way a practitioner of the actor's craft, each possessing a unique genius, would not only reshape their own lives and that of the times in which they lived, but they would help permanently transform the nature of American thought, politics, celebrity, and culture."

I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. For starters, only two of the men were involved in the case to any significant degree. Burns was hired by the city of Los Angeles to investigate the crime and tracked down its perpetrators. Darrow was hired to represent the defendants and managed to plea bargain them away from the executioner's grasp, but sullied his reputation by tampering with witnesses and buying jurors. Griffith was interested in the case but had nothing to do with it. The closest Blum is able to get him into the action is to claim that Frank Wolfe, who in 1913 released "From Dusk to Dawn," a film loosely based on the case, had received his "entire film education" by watching movies Griffith made for Biograph and "had been seduced by D.W.'s new aesthetic" of "close-ups, cross-cutting, realism, star performers."

Beyond that, any claim that the ostensible involvement of all three men in the Los Angeles bombing reshaped their lives and "the times in which they lived" is hyperbolic. For Burns, the case was merely one in a long series, distinguished to be sure by the determination and guile with which he tracked down the bombers but scarcely the highlight in a career that led to his appointment in 1921 as director of the federal agency that became the F.B.I. Darrow's career did not really revive until the mid-1920s, when two celebrated cases -- the Leopold-Loeb murder trial in Chicago and the Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee -- put him back on the front pages. As for Griffith, one can only ask: What in the world is this guy doing in this book?

The answer actually is easy. Blum is hell-bent on achieving Significance. It's not enough that the Los Angeles story is interesting on its own merits; he has to tart it up by connecting it to the rise of the movies, which "had become integrated into American life, a natural part of the national consciousness." He's after Relevance, too, which is why he writes, of the "terror campaign" of bombings in 1910: "The terrorists wanted to destroy the Republic. To defend the nation, [Burns] refused to be bound by a squeamish, impractical interpretation of the law. He had no qualms about taking liberties with the Constitution. This was war. And he knew he was on the side of patriotism and justice."

Take that, Bush and Cheney and Ashcroft! Take this, too, you and your weapons of mass destruction: "Facts . . . could be twisted and wedged to fit into any preconceived theory, the intrigue of any conspiracy." And this: "In one era, the precious commodity of water stirred intrigue. In another, oil helped to drive the plot. One century's detectives sought out dynamite caches, another's hunted downs [sic] WMDs." Why, if that doesn't get your blood boiling, nothing ever will. We know now, thanks to Howard Blum, that the events of the present day were all foreshadowed a century ago in Los Angeles, which means we get to be angry at Bush and Cheney and Ashcroft all over again, and which as a result might even sell a few books.

In the hope of nipping that possibility in the bud, herewith a quick summary of the facts of the case. The bombing of October 1 was the climax of an extended period in which various parts of the country had undergone bombings, including one in Peoria, Ill., that attracted wide attention. Many people assumed these to be the work of radical unionists, fears that intensified as business leaders and newspaper publishers expressed vehemently anti-labor sentiments. Among the most outspoken of these was Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who had "transformed [it] not only into a commercial success but also into a fiercely conservative, anti-union journal." It was no great surprise, therefore, that his building was targeted, though there is reason to believe that the bombers had not wanted to kill anyone.

As Burns and his men uncovered evidence, it became clear that there were important similarities between the Peoria and Los Angeles bombs. Eventually, the trail led to Indianapolis and J.J. McNamara, secretary-treasurer of the International Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, as well as his brother Jim and Ortie McManigal, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who said he had been recruited two years earlier by a member of the union's executive board "to blow up an office building that was being constructed by a nonunion crew." McManigal confessed, and the McNamara brothers were extradited to California. The evidence against them was so strong that even Darrow believed they were guilty; he persuaded them to plead guilty and then managed to convince the court not to execute them.

The story is more detailed and complicated than that, needless to say, but there is nothing in Blum's telling of it to warrant frittering away any reader's time on American Lightning. As one with a strong interest in various aspects of early 20th-century American life, I came to the book with considerable anticipation, but that was dashed by the end of the 11-page prologue. The rest was one long slog. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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