American Lightning

  • by Howard Blum
  • Narrated by John H. Mayer
  • 10 hrs and 32 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

It was an explosion that reverberated across the country - and into the very heart of early-20th-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, 21 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' fiercely anti-union owner - of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings. Simultaneously offering the absorbing listening 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.

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What the Critics Say

"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)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

very interesting popular history

OK, this is not serious, footnoted analytical history, of the kind I like to read (or tell myself "it is good for me"), but that kind of history doesn't often lend itself to good audio-listening. American Lightning does. It recovers the biography of the Burns detective agency, a story I did not know, it does a nice recounting of the wave of "anarchist" and organized labor bombings of symbols of capitalism in the first decade of the 20th century, including how famed lawyer Clarence Darrow got intertwined with it. And it (less successfully) incorporates the roots of the modern movie business in New York & S California in that period too.

The book is well-written & very well-read. It passes by as if effortlessly as an audiobook, although I suspect it would be more annoying to read due to some of its organizational jumpiness.

I recommend it very highly. Both for itself and, if it tickles your interest further, in directing the reader to learn more about the three protagonists in other books elsewhere.
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- D. Littman

Enjoyable, but might need to read it instead

I thoroughly enjoyed the story, as I am partial to several of its features: Holmesian detective work, stories about trials, early 20th-century American history, silent films, etc. Something interesting was always going on.
However, at times the plot is kind of hard to follow when listening. When the detecting kicks into high gear, it would be nice to have the chance to reread paragraphs instead of constantly rewinding on the iPod.
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- Legally Bored

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-16-2008
  • Publisher: Random House Audio