In the Used Book Cellar of Brookline Booksmith, numerous rows of foldable metal chairs sat between colorful shelves stacked with everything from second-hand recipe books to vintage graphic novels. Those rows filled up in a matter of minutes as the event began.
The independent bookstore in Coolidge Corner hosted a book reading Wednesday Dec. 1 with Boston University journalism professor Dick Lehr for his new work published Nov. 30, “White Hot Hate: A True Story of Domestic Terrorism in America’s Heartland.”
“White Hot Hate” details a foiled, white-supremacist terrorist plot to bomb a predominantly Somali-Muslim apartment complex and a mosque in remote southwest Kansas and the true story of the informant who helped the FBI prevent hundreds of deaths.
Lehr has written multiple books on both white supremacy and true crime in the United States, including stories focused on the political impacts of the 1915 D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation” and the history of the Boston mob.
Most notably, the New York Times bestselling book Lehr co-authored with fellow journalist Gerard O’Neill — “Black Mass” — was adapted for film in 2015 and starred Johnny Depp as South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger.
As a journalist, Lehr has written for the Boston Globe — where he became a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his investigative reporting and worked as a member of the Spotlight team — and the Hartford Courant.
Aryan Rai, one of Lehr’s graduate students studying in the College of Communication, sat among the audience.
“He’s one of the best professors we have,” Rai said, during an interview after the event. “He’s one of the reporters that you really want to read about.”
Alex Schaffner, Brookline Booksmith’s events director, said this was not Lehr’s first book reading there.
“He’s been doing book readings with us for years,” they said. Schaffner said they thought Lehr’s long-form journalism in “White Hot Hate” is something that could “really resonate” with Brookline Booksmith’s customers.
“It does tackle some of the political issues that a lot of people in our community are concerned about,” Schaffner said.
After a glowing introduction from Schaffner, Lehr took his place in front of the audience. He prefaced the reading with context about the book’s setting, Garden City, Kansas, and the recent rise of domestic, far-right terrorism in the United States.
In an interview, Lehr discussed the increasing governmental and public concern about the threat of domestic violent extremists after events such as the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. He said the story he tells in “White Hot Hate” goes “way beyond the headlines.”
“I think we’re in the midst of a period in which there is a ton of hate out there … and it’s consuming America,” Lehr said. “A story like this, this is of that problem and of that world.”
After his preface, Lehr read an excerpt from his book’s prologue. It began with a summarization of the events from the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, including specific detail about the weapons used and incorporation of eyewitness accounts.
The excerpt continues from the next morning in Garden City, Kansas, where Lehr introduces FBI informant Dan Day and some members of a local militia that would soon become co-conspirators in a domestic terrorist plot.
Lehr said he was able to include the exact dialogue of these individuals’ conversations in his book through source material, including hours of tapes recorded by Day.
Eliza Billingham, another one of Lehr’s graduate students in COM, said the amount of research that went into this book seemed “overwhelming.”
Billingham, a student in Lehr’s Law and Ethics of Journalism course, said she attended the reading because of her interest in long-form nonfiction.
“He’s so accessible and such an incredible writer,” Billingham said in an interview after the event. “I wanted to hear him talking about this kind of work and not just the legal stuff we’ve been going over in class.”
The excerpt also included a story from the same morning of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, from the perspective of a prominent member of Garden City’s Somali immigrant community, Adan Keynan. While Keynan faced challenges keeping his small business afloat, he also worried about how a potential increase of Islamophobia resulting from the Orlando shooting could affect his community.
When visiting Garden City to research for this book, one of Lehr’s major goals was to give a voice to the perspectives of the Somali immigrant community there, he said.
“The targets [of the terrorist plot] were Somalis,” said Lehr in the interview. “I didn’t want to write a book in which they were stick figures.”
After Lehr finished the reading and held a question and answer session, Schaffner guided the audience up the stairs, past the “Watch Your Step” signage, and to the bookstore’s expansion. There, Lehr sat at a small table across from the string-light-decorated wine bar while people waited in line for their chance to talk to him and get a signed copy of “White Hot Hate.”
“It’s one of the things that indie bookstores can offer that online platforms really don’t … a sense of in-person community,” said Schaffner.