Book review: “Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore

by Rebecca Henderson Palmer on October 9, 2017

Mr. Moore tells a fictionalized “behind the scenes” tale of the nation’s first major law suit over intellectual property, Edison vs. Westinghouse, which can be overly generalized as “who invented the first incandescent lightbulb?” George Westinghouse, a Pittsburgh-based inventor and businessman, is sued hundreds of times by the “Wizard of Menlo Park”, aka Thomas Edison, in a vicious legal battle over who would be able to produce and sell electric light bulbs to a country eager to escape the dim confines of flickering gas lamps and candle light. Westinghouse chooses a young, inexperienced lawyer named Paul Cravath to head his legal fight against the internationally recognized titan. Cravath quickly learns that he has a massive battle on his hands, one more experienced lawyers knew better than to take on themselves. Beyond the production and sale of the actual light bulbs, Edison and Westinghouse are in a race to monopolize the sale of the electrical grids that American cities and towns are desperate to install. Edison champions direct current (“DC”) but is having problems because DC is not sustainable over distances exceeding 100 feet in length. Westinghouse and Tesla support alternating current (“AC”), which requires higher voltage but can manage longer distances. Edison and Westinghouse fight tooth and nail in the courtroom, in the newspapers, and in the realm of public opinion over who will eventually provide electricity to every home in America. Cravath learns time and time again that Edison will stop at absolutely nothing to win this war and he’s willing to spend millions of dollars to do it. As Cravath suffers physical, emotional, and professional setbacks, the lines over who is truly “good” and who is “bad” begin to blur. With a whole cast of characters including Paul’s greedy senior law partners, an intelligent and beautiful opera singer named Agnes Huntington, a wise Alexander Graham Bell, the opportunistic J.P. Morgan, the strange but brilliant Nikola Tesla, and the two warring titans themselves, Paul sets out to win a high stakes game of corporate backstabbing, burglary, theft, arson, legal maneuvering, execution, and one-upmanship that has more twists and turns than he can ever fully imagine.

Although it seems that Mr. Moore took great liberties to tell this story, most of the characters are historical persons and that always invites a great game of “what if”. The writing is superb and the characters are deep, rich, and oftentimes surprising. Even if you know of the historical outcome of the law suit, the plot is such a wild ride, that you’ll have no trouble going along just to see what happens next. If anything, there are almost too many subplots traveling along in parallel, so much that you will never guess where the train will eventually stop. You have to stay up with this one. Look away for a second and you may be lost. Enormously good fun – I definitely recommend it.

Amazon link is here.

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