American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century
by Howard Blum
(Crown, $24.95)

In 1910, Los Angeles was the epicenter of “a near second civil war,” says Vanity Fair correspondent Howard Blum. Employers and organized labor were clashing throughout the nation, and the City of Angels appeared poised to side decisively with workers by electing its first socialist mayor. Just past 1 a.m. on Oct. 1, a series of explosions ripped through the downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, igniting a spectacular fire and killing at least 20. Harrison Gray Otis, the fiercely anti-union owner of the paper, had no doubt about where to assign blame. “Unionist Bombs Wreck the Times,” read the morning headline. The sitting mayor turned to William J. Burns, the most famous detective in the nation, to track down the killers.

Blum’s enthusiasm for the story is understandable, said Richard Rayner in the Los Angeles Times. The Times case “was a landmark in the histories of Southern California and the American labor and socialist movements,” but no previous book has been devoted to it. Unfortunately, American Lightning proves to be an uneven effort. Though its “swiftly paced” narrative makes the most of a cross-country manhunt “as thrilling as anything in Sherlock Holmes,” Blum never fully conveys how much business leaders won and how much workers lost in the aftermath. Eventually, two Midwestern ironworkers pleaded guilty to the bombings, and their crusading defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, was tried for jury tampering.

Blum often seems to be trying too hard, said Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. You won’t know “whether to laugh or cry” when he tries to manufacture a central role for the pioneering filmmaker D.W. Griffith or when he argues that these events would “reshape” American “thought, politics, celebrity, and culture.” A combination of hyperbole and contrivance, American Lightning squanders the promise of its subject matter. Nor is Blum convincing when he claims that the resolution of the crime restored “the national equilibrium,” said John Hartl in The Seattle Times. Given the powerful feelings that underlay both the labor and capitalist causes, “equilibrium” seems too tame a word.