Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#43: American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum

Crown Publishers, 2008. 339 pages.

Ohhhhhhhh man! If the current folks complaining about President Obama being a Socialist could read this book! Not only does Eugene Debs make an appearance...but so does Big Bill Haywood! Awesome! The text focuses on the Oct 1, 1910 destruction of the LA Times building. It seems that the building was blown up using dynamite, killing 21 people. This is one of those events that I had no idea about.

The text is a story of three people: William Burns, Clarance Darrow and D.W. Griffith. Burns was the operator of the most dreaded private detection agency this side of the Pinkertons in 1910. Darrow was by this point a famous attorney in his 50s. Griffith was a movie director who could not keep his dick in his pants. In a slightly more important note, he invented the close up.Yes, this is a "real crime" story. But, it is fascinating.

Los Angeles, much like the rest of the country in 1910, was beset by the age old battle of capitalists vs. labor. When the Times building went up in smoke the question became who was guilty, not why they did it. This is the first thing the reader notices. In 1910, growing up in poverty or earning $5 for a 65 hour week was not considered reasons for committing a crime.

Both sides looked at the trial as something that was to be played outside the courtroom. Bloom lays wasted the idea that the OJ or Chuck Manson case changed the way criminals are judged in this country. I could not help but think of Casey Anthony while I read this book. Media convicted her years ago; they then labeled the verdict "surprising". In this country, we try people every day via polls and other assorted bull shit. This did not start in the 1980s. Bloom convincingly argues that it begins in the first decade of the 20th century.

In some ways, the crime itself is secondary to the politics surrounding it, which was Darrow's biggest problem with the case. Darrow was reluctant to take the case because of the energy he expended in a corruption case in San Francisco five years before. If people currently think that Fox News and MSNBC are partisan, the media companies are ball-less wienies compared to outfits like the LA Times or NY Times in the early 1900s. Bloom's portrait of both sides is even handed.

What is most compelling is Billy Burns, the private detective who is charged with solving the crime. At one point, he is asked while doing a search "Do we not have rights?" Burns replied "Not in this case you do not." It is here that Bloom's narrative is both the most compelling and most frustrating. The actions of both sides (bribing witnesses, bullying, kidnapping witnesses) is carried on with not one jot of thought for civil liberties. In fact, civil liberties seem an anathema to the capitalists. Bloom does not explore this as much as I would like, but the reader can swing his/her own way on that matter. What does matter is this is a story that deserves to be told, and Bloom does tell it very well.

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