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Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence [Paperback]

Bill James
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

May 8 2012
The man who revolutionized the way we think about baseball examines our cultural obsession with murder—delivering a unique, engrossing, brilliant history of tabloid crime in America.

Celebrated writer and contrarian Bill James has voraciously read true crime throughout his life and has been interested in writing a book on the topic for decades. With Popular Crime, James takes readers on an epic journey from Lizzie Borden to the Lindbergh baby, from the Black Dahlia to O. J. Simpson, explaining how crimes have been committed, investigated, prosecuted and written about, and how that has profoundly influenced our culture over the last few centuries—even if we haven’t always taken notice.

Exploring such phenomena as serial murder, the fluctuation of crime rates, the value of evidence, radicalism and crime, prison reform and the hidden ways in which crimes have shaped, or reflected, our society, James chronicles murder and misdeeds from the 1600s to the present day. James pays particular attention to crimes that were sensations during their time but have faded into obscurity, as well as still-famous cases, some that have never been solved, including the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Boston Strangler and JonBenet Ramsey. Satisfyingly sprawling and tremendously entertaining, Popular Crime is a professed amateur’s powerful examination of the incredible impact crime stories have on our society, culture and history.

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Review

“An engagingly written history of well-publicized deadly crimes.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For true-crime afficianados, this book is a hoot. James has to be the least starchy serious writer I’ve run across in years. He has the gift of writing the way a person talks—no easy task, believe me—giving Popular Crime a folksy, conversational feel.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A very entertaining book, and it will instigate arguments even as it scores many important points.”—The Washington Post

“Running through Popular Crime is an exploration of the enduring popularity of true crime. James' thought-provoking meditations elevate his book far above any routine recitation of facts.”—The Seattle Times

"Popular Crime is bloodthirstily engrossing, and you can read it with the cover proudly showing, because this is an important study of American culture and the human animal's fascination with violence. Bill James deserves a standing ovation."--Stephen King

About the Author

Bill James made his mark in the 1970s and 1980s with his Baseball Abstracts. He is currently the Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox. James lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and three children.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Len TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Mr. James outlines the history of popular crime beginning with Rome in 24 AD with the murder of a wife by her husband Plautius Silvanus and the subsequent desire for retribution from his wife's family eventually removing Plautius, his family and their ancestors from all public life. He then jumps to the questionable abduction of Elizabeth Canning in London in1759 followed by one of the most famous crimes of the century when Elma Sands' body floating in the Manhattan Well of New York in 1799. The trial of Levi Weeks, her accused killer, was filled with controversy. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, both famous politician of the time and mortal enemies would both be hired by Mr. Weeks father to defend his son. This comprehensive survey of popular crime continues through the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Dozens of crimes are described in detail along with a critique of suggested books for further reading. Theories are provided on numerous matters relating to crime. Eighteen elements are provided by which crime can be categorized. Elements could be celebrity of political status, an innocent victim may have been involved, fraud, adventure, or money. From these elements, Mr. James has devised a scale by which a crime can be categorized according to it's potential for popular interest. Obviously, a celebrity will be higher on the scale as would a high level of mystery or sexual violence. JonBenet Thomas was not a celebrity in her own right prior to her death but her father was wealthy, her death was a mystery and had elements of sexual violence. Naturally, the O.J. Simpson case would score in the stratosphere of popularity both in reality and in accord with Mr. James' scale. Mr. James' theorizes that the high crime levels experience in the U.S. Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 3.2 out of 5 stars  61 reviews
45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Readable, but don't expect it to be "Crime Abstract 2011" May 14 2011
By T. Frank - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I've been reading Bill James since the 1982 Baseball Abstract, so I was going to read this, too.

Ironically, James is at his best in this book when he just has fun thinking outside the box and plays detective, challenging conventional wisdom on a variety of random crime cases. When he tries to play sabremetrician, however, the results are embarrassing. There's a murder-classification system that he must have created for data analysis, but then there's no data analysis--perhaps because he correctly realized there was little quantifiable about the series of anecdotes. He tries to create a 100-point guide to guilt or innocence, but the metrics are all pulled out of thin air and are entirely unpersuasive.

But it is good to hear James expose the emperor's clothes on a feature of the American justice system: how much it is a gameshow of obfuscation on both sides, and how little criminal trials have to do with the truth. There are the obvious examples of recent Los Angeles celebrity cases, but the book earns its keep when it explores the historical record with tales of the corruption of Clarence Darrow and other noted criminal defense attorneys.

The book is entirely readable, but it's less a coherent book than a series of anecdotes: your eccentric uncle shooting the breeze about things he wants to talk about on the subject of crime and crime books. One gets the sense that the book wasn't published because it was finished, but it was finished because it was time to be published. So we see themes raised and dropped without rhyme or reason; the organization is chronological. Chronological, but not systematic: for example, the Stanford White case is disposed of quickly with the assumption that the reader already knows about it. (I don't, so I felt let down.) Some crime books get extensive reviews; others don't. As others have noted, it feels insufficiently edited.

I don't regret purchasing it, as I enjoyed reading it, but I can see the potential for disappointment. Don't think of it as a Baseball Abstract revolutionizing the field; it's more like the baseball books James wrote in the 1990s with Rob Neyer where the two dug through the historical archives to tell interesting anecdotes about baseball players in an alphabetical catalog that ended before it even got to the letter B: entertaining in places, inconsistent with spotty insights, and not remotely complete.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Know What You're Getting Into May 20 2011
By David Dubbert - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book a lot, but I think I would have been better served by understanding exactly what it is before I started. It's subtitled, "Reflections on the Celebration of Violence," and the key word here is "reflections." This book is effectively hundreds of pages made up of a huge number of reflections. A reader searching for a single theme, or thesis that James is positing will be disappointed. Instead, readers should think of it as more of an invitation to go along for the ride as James thinks through a lot of the crimes that have gained popular attention throughout our American history. That's not to say that there aren't a couple of general themes, but the value in this book is simply the opportunity to see and think about these crimes the way Bill James does. He's a fiercely independent thinker, and isn't afraid to weigh in on these issues, though he makes a modest attempt to remain humble in light of his lack of practical experience in these matters. In the end, the book was anything but a waste of time, though I can't really say that I now understand crime in America any better than I did before. That's not the point of the book, of course. But I think I could forgive you for thinking that it's what the book was supposed to be about.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I was looking forward to this one Sept. 3 2012
By Kevin Killian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Reading this book is like being in the same room with the author, and for some that must be a virtue, for he creates an intimate tone as though he were telling only you what's on his mind. But the room is a bar and he's like one of those taproom windbags who won't shut up until they've proven how brilliant they are a thousand times, and you just can't get away. If you object to some point he's making, or some twist in his argument that doesn't hold up, he just tells you how stupid you are and once again, how he revolutionized thinking about baseball and now he has a similar gimmick with crime. Even when I agreed with him (as in the Jonbenet Ramsey case) I kept squirming, thinking if this jackass is on my side, then maybe I'm on the wrong side. But usually he's found the answer long ago, and it's often the predictable one. James isn't much for subtlety, for the simple reason that most criminals are not brain scientists, no, most of them do what seems like the easy way out. On the other hand then there's Sam Sheppard. James must have had a fit when he saw The Fugitive with its not very hidden subtext that Sheppard was railroaded. I wish I was with him when the TV show came on the air and seen his rage well up. He's sort of an angry guy, but he's got the answer to everything, and if he doesn't, then the case itself doesn't merit inclusion in a book on popular crime. One of those elastic categories that will fit everything James wants to tell you about, and one that excludes everything he's grown stale on. Oh well, I should have read the Amazon reviews in the first place before plunging into a book with such high expectations.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, Mischievious, Amusing-- Great Fun July 25 2011
By Chris Ward - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If you're a reader of true crime books, or a person who watches movies about non-fictional murders, you'll enjoy this discursive and entertaining meditation on (mostly) murder. Bill James is clearly a devotee of American crime, its history and its quirks; here he holds forth on about three dozen famous cases from the last century or so. I've read books on many of these cases, and James always has some amusing and often compelling (and contrarian) analysis to offer.

Lizzie Borden, the Lindbergh Baby, Sam Shepard, the Boston Strangler, JonBenet Ramsay-- these and dozens of others are covered in some detail. James is an inveterate wise-ass, so his commentary is larded with humor as well as trenchant scholarship. His love of statistics stands him in good stead throughout. He applies common-sense argumentation to bolster his opinions, and I enjoyed the book right up to the last chapters. There, he becomes prescriptive and polemical, telling us how to rescue our penal system-- the preachiness is less appealing than what goes before.

Overall, a really fun read for crime aficionados. If you fall into that category, you'll find much to admire-- and to argue with-- in this fine book.
43 of 55 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Muddled Mess June 1 2011
By I. Zawilski - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Where to begin? I don't remember the last time I was so disappointed by a book I'd been looking forward to.

It started as early as page 7. This is where the author began sneering at "the NPR crowd" and intellectuals who "write like trolls." Variations on this theme continued throughout the book. I was surprised to find that Mr. James attended college. I was sure he was a high school dropout with extreme higher education envy. Some of the passages in the book contradicted themselves and seemed illustrative of muddled thinking. His "jokes" often fell flat, like on page 300, where he compared President Obama to Ted Bundy.

The author also displays throughout the book a kind of defensiveness about his topic. He says that "if you are a writer and you try to talk your editor into working on a book about famous crimes, he or she will instantly begin hedging you toward something more...decent." It seems to me that despite what Mr. James says, there are loads of books on famous crimes. Maybe the author's editor was more worried about the limitations of the author than the appropriateness of the topic. (Mr. James describes himself as "not an easy man to edit." I don't doubt it; a giant ego will do that.)

Mr. James enjoys setting up strawman arguments and bashing the heck out of them. He makes many statements about what society, culture, liberals, or academics think about this or that subject and these opinions are presented as fact. For example, he says bookstores are ashamed of their true crime stories and shelve them next to the pornography. He also cites TruTv a lot. TruTv's schedule hasn't had much to do with crime and forensics in the past few years, except for Forensic Files, and I've heard that's being canceled. I don't know where he gets some of these ideas, except possibly out of his nether regions. By the way, don't look for footnotes. Or an organized bibliography. He claims to have read a "thousand or more" crime books. He mentions some of them in the text, and his comments about them are often amusing. Once he noted that a book was well written, and then a paragraph later griped that he didn't understand why it had sold so well! It was also laugh-out-loud funny when he criticized another book for, basically, a lack of documented research. Pot, kettle, black!

I really bought this book because it promised to cover some of the lesser known crimes. This it did, but t here were two problems. First, it seemed that the telling of the stories were secondary to the author's expounding on his convoluted theories on crime. Most stories were preceded by, followed by, or interrupted by Mr. James' over-complicated and arcane classification systems, along with a large dose of pop psychology, (his term). All this was pretty much dreck, in my opinion; the unsupported opinions and meanderings of a self-indulgent dilettante.

The second problem was more troubling. I came to distrust his reporting of the facts of the crime. He spent a lot of time on Lizzie Borden. It happens that I've done a bit of reading on this case recently. Mr. James is convinced that Lizzie didn't do it. That's okay, but he seems to have edited the facts to support his theory. He points out that Lizzie had a good relationship with her fishing buddy father. He pooh poohs the idea that Lizzie had a financial motive for the crime, remarking that she would have inherited her father's fortune anyway

Here's the thing about that. Lizzie wasn't getting any younger and her wealthy skinflint father's penny-pinching ways forced her and her sister to live in an undesirable part of town, in a house with no indoor plumbing or any other modern conveniences that were becoming common. As soon as Lizzie beat the rap and the girls came into their inheritances, they immediately purchased a large house on the fashionable side of town. Lizzie especially revelled in her new lifestyle that included parties and the company of theater folks. No motive? I beg to differ!

The author also doesn't mention that Lizzie's relationship with her father had deteriorated in the days prior to the murders. Lizzie had some pet pigeons in cages in the family barn. Daddy thought the birds were attracting undesirable neighborhood youths, and so a short time prior to his death, he decapitated the birds and left the remains for Lizzie to find.

Also, although Mr. James mentions that Lizzie's sister was away from home at the time of the killings, he doesn't tell you why. It turns out that both Emma and Lizzie left home in a snit, to stay with relatives out of town. It seems that dear old dad was arranging to sell or transfer property to one of his wife's relatives (not the first time he had done something similar). The girls had a sentimental attachment to this particular property where they had spent some happy times, and were upset about this. When Lizzie came back to town, she actually stayed at a boarding house in town for a while, rather than return to the family residence. When she did come home, the killings followed in short order.

Thus, it appeared the author omitted information that didn't support his case. This made me wonder about the cases I wasn't so familiar with. Were the facts in those cases bent too? I don't know, but I do know that some of his statements about the criminal justice system are completely false. Late in the book, during one of his rants, he claims that an individual on bail, before or after conviction, gets credit for any time on bail against the service of whatever sentence he receives. I worked in the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania between 1970 and 2005, and I can tell you that this is absolutely not true in Pennsylvania. A bit of Googling tells me it's not true in New York or Florida. I don't believe it is true anywhere in the U.S. Once again, the lack of documentation makes it impossible to discover where Mr. James came by this misinformation. Maybe he enjoys being indignant too much to let facts get in the way.

So, all in all, this book is twenty years' worth (that's how long he says it took to write it) of an amateur's musings on the perceived failings of the US criminal justice system, interspersed with crime tales, at least one of which has significant omissions. Decide for yourself whether it's worth your time. I know that it will not remain on my shelf.
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