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Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence Paperback – May 8 2012

5.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (May 8 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 141655274X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416552741
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 481 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #11,801 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“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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Top Customer Reviews

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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa7dc77e0) out of 5 stars 75 reviews
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa78e34b0) out of 5 stars Readable, but don't expect it to be "Crime Abstract 2011" May 14 2011
By T. Frank - Published on
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.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa78e36fc) out of 5 stars Know What You're Getting Into May 20 2011
By David Dubbert - Published on
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.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa78e36c0) out of 5 stars I was looking forward to this one Sept. 3 2012
By Kevin Killian - Published on
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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa78e3a50) out of 5 stars Informative, Mischievious, Amusing-- Great Fun July 25 2011
By Chris Ward - Published on
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.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa78e3eac) out of 5 stars A Jumbled, Repetitious Mess Oct. 3 2012
By Thomas Parker - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Early on in its almost 500 pages, James indicates that this book will be a study of the place of true crime stories in american culture, how their role has evolved over time, and the positive and negative effects that our fascination with such stories has on our society. This seemed to me to be an interesting subject. What the book turned out to be, however, was mostly the recounting of many american crimes from the 18th century to today, some famous and some not, using them as springboards for James to blather on about whatever he had on his mind at the time - politics, the law, prison reform, statistics, the meaning of evidence, problems with police proceedures, the excesses of the press, the faults of crime book writers, and on and on and on. Many of these topics are themselves quite interesting and James frequently has insightful things to say about them, but I found his scattershot method (and I'm being very generous in calling it a method) increasingly annoying. The book remained marginally readable because the crimes that James talks about are inherently interesting and because he can be an engaging writer - on a small scale, as in good chapters on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Zodiac killer. But in terms of organization and internal coherence, Popular Crime may be the worst book I've ever read - a jumbled, repetitous mess. Intelligent as he is, James is a writer without discipline, and if I were in charge of Scribners, his "editor" would be a man without a job.