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Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence Paperback – May 8 2012
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“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.See all Product Description
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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.
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.