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Download American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century Audiobook

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3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (928 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Howard Blum Narrator: John H. Mayer Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date: September 2008 ISBN: 9780739374566
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It was an explosion that reverberated across the country—and into the very heart of early-twentieth-century America. On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times Building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured. But as it turned out, this was just a prelude to the devastation that was to come.

In American Lightning, acclaimed author Howard Blum masterfully evokes the incredible circumstances that led to the original “crime of the century”—and an aftermath more dramatic than even the crime itself.

With smoke still wafting up from the charred ruins, the city’s mayor reacts with undisguised excitement when he learns of the arrival, only that morning, of America’s greatest detective, William J. Burns, a former Secret Service man who has been likened to Sherlock Holmes. Surely Burns, already world famous for cracking unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises, can run the perpetrators to ground.

Through the work of many months, snowbound stakeouts, and brilliant forensic sleuthing, the great investigator finally identifies the men he believes are responsible for so much destruction. Stunningly, Burns accuses the men—labor activists with an apparent grudge against the Los Angeles Times’s fiercely anti-union owner—of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.

While preparation is laid for America’s highest profile trial ever—and the forces of labor and capital wage hand-to-hand combat in the streets—two other notable figures are swept into the drama: industry-shaping ?lmmaker D.W. Griffith, who perceives in these events the possibility of great art and who will go on to alchemize his observations into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation; and crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow, committed to lend his eloquence to the defendants, though he will be driven to thoughts of suicide before events have fully played out.

Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can’t-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.

Download and start listening now!

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Quotes & Awards

  • “Master detective William Burns on one side and famed attorney Clarence Darrow on the other…A riveting account of twentieth century homegrown political terrorism.”

    Library Journal

  • “Completely riveting…Blum chronicles the trial and its aftermath, building suspense with an astonishing cast of characters.”

    Booklist (starred review)

  • “The author’s eye for scene-setting and subtle explication perfectly mimics a Griffith-style camera. Blum is at his best when exploring the motivations, the genius, and the deep flaws of his three principals, men who occupied the same room only once in their lives, but who are memorably linked in this book. Unfailingly entertaining.”

    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  • “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.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • “A thumping-good drum roll of narrative history…The cross-country manhunt reads like a great mystery novel…Blum blows the dust off a page of America’s own incendiary past and brings it to pulsating life.”

    Dallas Morning News

  • “Compelling…A tense detective story.”

    Seattle Times

  • “A fast-moving, skillfully constructed account…Blum’s style is cinematic.”

    Chicago Sun-Times

  • “Hugely engaging…[It] has tremendous verve…American Lightning throws valuable new light on an episode that seems, for us today, particularly pertinent. Terrorism happened here.”

    Los Angeles Times

  • “An absorbing, novel-like narrative…Masterfully crafted…Blum’s dedication to digging for facts and adhering to journalistic principles in reporting this entangled and multifaceted tale one hundred years after the fact raises comparisons to Truman Capote’s diligence in writing In Cold BloodAmerican Lightning is a must-read.”

    USA Today

  • “Extraordinary…Like a horseless-carriage episode of 24.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • Extraordinary…[reads] like a horseless-carriage episode of ’24.’ Wall Street Journal
  • An absorbing, novel-like narrative…masterfully crafted…Blum’s dedication to digging for facts and adhering to journalistic principles in reporting this entangled and multifaceted tale l00 years after the fact raises comparisons to Truman Capote’s diligence in writing IN COLD BLOOD…AMERICAN LIGHTNING is a must-read. USA Today
  • Hugely engaging…has tremendous verve…AMERICAN LIGHTNING throws valuable new light on an episode that seems, for us today, particularly pertinent. Terrorism happened here. Los Angeles Times
  • A fast-moving, skillfully constructed account…Blum’s style is cinematic. Chicago Sun-Times
  • A thumping-good drum roll of narrative history…the cross-country manhunt reads like a great mystery novel…Blum blows the dust off a page of America’s own incendiary past and brings it to pulsating life. Dallas Morning News
  • Blum’s engaging prose makes this scandal — with its O.J.-trial-like impact — come alive. Details
  • In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, Blum paints is 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. Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
  • The author’s eye for scene-setting and subtle explication perfectly mimics a Griffith-style camera. Blum is at his best when exploring the motivations, the genius and the deep flaws of his three principals, men who occupied the same room only once in their lives, but who are memorably linked in this book. Unfailingly entertaining. Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
  • Completely riveting…Blum chronicles the trial and its aftermath, building suspense with an astonishing cast of characters. Booklist (Starred Review)
  • Master detective William Burns on one side and famed attorney Clarence Darrow on the other…A riveting account of 20th century homegrown political terrorism. Library Journal
  • An unforgettable tale of murder, deceit, celebrity, media manipulation, and film as propaganda, when the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building exposed the deadly ‘national dynamite plot’ by trade unionists to terrorize America with one-hundred bombings in a doomed attempt to force capitalism to its knees. The relentless pursuit, capture, trial, and punishment of the bombers made a national hero of America's Sherlock Holmes, master detective Billy Burns, and entangled crusading defense lawyer Clarence Darrow in a reckless, nearly career-ending scheme to bribe witnesses and jurors and throttle justice. Gripping, surprising, often thrilling, AMERICAN LIGHTNING ranks among the most riveting works of narrative history. James L. Swanson, author of the Edgar Award-winning New York Times bestseller MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER
  • This is a wonderful story, with a cast of characters out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, told in a style that is lucid, lyrical, even electric. Narrative history at its very best. Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize winning author of FOUNDING BROTHERS and AMERICAN CREATION
  • Compelling…a tense detective story. The Seattle Times
  • In AMERICAN LIGHTNING Howard Blum brings to life the tragic bombing of the Los Angeles Times in l910. Writing with narrative verve and finely-honed detective instincts, Blum fleshes out the real story behind this hideous act of domestic terrorism. Highly recommended! Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of THE GREAT DELUGE and TOUR OF DUTY and Professor of History, Rice University
  • Howard Blum has given us a fascinating--and hugely entertaining--glimpse into early 20th-century America. The burgeoning labor movement, the dawn of the movies, bomb-toting anarchists, ‘the crime of the century,’ gimlet-eyed private detectives, Clarence Darrow,  you name it and it's here. And--eat your hearts out, novelists--it's all true. John Steele Gordon, author of EMPIRE OF WEALTH: THE EPIC HISTORY OF AMERICAN ECONOMIC POWER
  • As good a true-crime tale as you could hope to find, well-researched, vivid, irresistible. Andrew Solomon, author of the National Book Award-winning THE NOONDAY DEMON
  • Howard Blum has performed a literary miracle. He has brought back to vivid and relevant life a forgotten act of terrorism in America’s past — and made it as suspenseful and crowded with unforgettable characters as any novel I have ever read. Thomas Fleming, New York Times bestselling author of THE OFFICERS’ WIVES, TIME AND TIDE and THE PERILS OF PEACE
  • AMERICAN LIGHTNING strikes at the soul of Los Angeles the way RAGTIME revealed turn-of-the-century New York. Like E. L. Doctorow, Howard Blum has captured a time and a place through masterful manipulation of true events, weaving an intricate tale of class war and intrigue that harks back to an era when L.A. was little more than a pueblo, frontier justice still prevailed and a fabulous cast of real-life characters dragged the future metropolis kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. Dennis McDougal, New York Times bestselling author of THE LAST MOGUL: LEW WASSERMAN, MCA, AND THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD and PRIVILEGED SON: OTIS CHANDLER AND THE RISE AND FALL OF THE LA TIMES DYNASTY
  • Winner of the 2009 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Fact Crime
  • Selected for the October 2008 Indie Next List

Listener Opinions

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Lee | 2/11/2014

    " This is a painful read - not well done and I'm struggling to finish "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Cheri | 1/18/2014

    " I didn't quite finish this book group book and didn't like it enough to keep reading. I think I would like it during a less busy time in my life and it might make a great movie. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 David | 12/30/2013

    " Terrorism has been an element of American history for a very long time. In 1910, radical union labor leaders actually blew up the Los Angeles Times building. The bombers struck at night foolishly thinking no one would be hurt. Of course, newspapers were then 24-hour operations and 20 people were killed. The mystery of who committed this crime (and why) was unraveled after a long investigation by the famous detective Billy Burns. Besides Burns, two of the main characters are the film maker D.W. Griffin and the great people's lawyer Clarence Darrow who in his zeal to get a not guilty verdict bribes one of the jurors. This is a great read and I learned quite a bit about the early labor movement and ended up being somewhat sympathetic to the bombers as the then owner of the Los Angeles Times was a horrible reactionary and the way they treated workers and busted unions was appalling. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Marian | 12/19/2013

    " Non fiction book - very engaging - the story of an explosion in October 1,1910 which destroyed the anti-union Los Angles Times Building and killed 21 people. Story of how the investigator Billy Burns investigates the crime and how it intersects with the lives of Clarence Darrow who is defending the men accused of setting off the dynamite and D.W. Griffith who is developing the films with social statements. Highly recommended. Book is extremely well researched "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 James Blatter | 11/21/2013

    " I think this is a very reflective book on our own times of social upheaval and the battle of progressives vs conservatives and the force of technology in moving history. The forgotten act of domestic terrorism and the rise of some poerful and infulential men and women a true history that reads like a novel. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Kemper | 9/6/2013

    " Fans of The Devil in the White City should like this one. It's narrative history set against the backdrop of the bombing of a conservative turn-of-the-century newspaper. Clarence Darrow and D.W. Griffith are a couple of the more famous people the book tracks through the case. Lightweight history but an entertaining read. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Joe Ketzner | 9/5/2013

    " Excellent! You forget the events happened 100 years ago - the author does a great job of making you feel these are contemporary events. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Bobbi | 9/4/2013

    " Generallly a good, fast-paced read. I had no idea about the "crime of the century", although since it occurred in 1910 I guess there wasn't much competition at that time. The portrait of Darrow that emerged was certainly not the impression that everyone has of him. Billy Burns emerges as a somewhat scurrilous character, but 1910 was a different time and place. It was amazing that he was able to "direct" the police as he proceeded in his investigation. Not great literature, but fun to read. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Joshua | 8/22/2013

    " This is really good - fairly easy read although it took me about 40 pages to get into. Great 100 year old story that applies to modern times - terror, class struggle... I also enjoyed early learning about Hollywood, D.W. Griffith and would love to see some of his early works. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Jason Reeser | 8/2/2013

    " A nice, quick, enjoyable history of a fogotten major headline from the beginning of the last century. A good job of mixing the stories of three prominent men and their storylines. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Wendy | 6/10/2013

    " Another well-done book about an actual historical event. It was really very interesting how the author blended details about the union bombings with the start of the movie industry. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Meg Marie | 11/23/2012

    " I can't believe we never learned about this case in high school history! The true story of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in the beginning of the 1900s - it's a story of early unions, the rise of Socialism and the beginning of the movie business. It's a great detective story, very well told. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Books Inc. in Mountain View | 10/22/2012

    " Clarence Darrow and D.W. Griffith are among the memorable characters in the mystery of the explosion of the L.A. Times building. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Debra | 4/19/2012

    " I kept checking the cover to make sure this was indeed a non-fiction book and not a novel. So many different threads swirling and intersecting. This book actually led me into a two year perusal of early silent movies and their development starting with D.W. Griffith. "

  • 1 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 5 Irene | 3/1/2012

    " This book did not capture my interest whatsoever. I got just over halfway through before I gave up on reading it. Should I create a new "started to read, but never finished" shelf? I tried! "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Alecia | 2/9/2012

    " meh. not that exciting- although it is an interesting story, I'm not sure what's with all the 'full of heartstopping action' reviews on the back of the book. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Lauren | 9/13/2011

    " Fascinating account of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times that goes far beyond this one event into the lives of the people involved and America at the turn of the century. One of the best written and most engaging books about history I've read in years. Highly recommended. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Kelly Nielsen | 8/4/2011

    " To me, any writing of this genre needs to measure up to Erik Larson (Devil in the White City). This book doesn't measure up. The story was interesting, but not a page turner. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Kaywalsh | 3/21/2011

    " It was very interesting and clever. Three famous Americans successful in different fields collide at one point in history. Good insights into early 20th century American thinking and the rise of unions especially pertinent to life today. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Michael | 3/21/2011

    " Not as good as "The White City" but I learned a lot about the era and the three major personages that make up this book. The D. W. Griffith and early days of NYC film on 14th street was the best part. "

  • 1 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 5 Irene | 3/13/2011

    " This book did not capture my interest whatsoever. I got just over halfway through before I gave up on reading it. Should I create a new "started to read, but never finished" shelf? I tried! "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Jessi | 1/18/2011

    " I listened to the audiobook - good reader, very interesting story. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Barb | 1/17/2011

    " Turner Classic Movies had a recent TV series on the history of movies in the U.S. It was interesting to compare this book to that series, even more so since I was experiencing both at the same time. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Beverly | 1/10/2011

    " I found this book rather hard to get through. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Kelly | 11/2/2010

    " To me, any writing of this genre needs to measure up to Erik Larson (Devil in the White City). This book doesn't measure up. The story was interesting, but not a page turner. "

  • 1 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 5 Brian | 10/23/2010

    " Not a bad book, but Blum's cavalier approach to little things like sourcing for quotes and historical context really got in the way of what he was trying to say. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Nicole | 8/24/2010

    " Well, maybe it is my history major getting in the way, but this was really sensationalized. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Cackey | 7/5/2010

    " very interesting history of the beginnings of hollywood, the beginnings of LA, a great lawyer, and a great detective right after the turn of the century. "

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About the Author
Author Howard Blum

Howard Blum started his career as a reporter for the New York Times. While he still writes nonfiction, he is more focused on writing books that are driven by characters and sustained narrative. He lives in Connecticut with his family.

About the Narrator

John H. Mayer is a writer, actor, and audiobook narrator. In 1973, he cowrote Radio Rocket Boy, an award-winning short film. He also has narrated dozens of audiobooks, including American Lion and The Wolf Tree, among many others.