Popular Crime (Book Review)

popular-crimeI live in a small town in Virginia that now has no bookstore.  We used to have a Borders, but they went under.  Then the only shop in town was a small used bookstore that also hawked baseball cards and comic books on the side.  Now they’re gone too.  So apart from the public library bargain bin, I have to trek to the nearest city for the bookstore experience (sorry Amazon, you still get a lot of my money, but it’s just not the same).  The last time my dad was perusing the shelves of McKay’s, the giant used bookstore 15 miles away, he stumbled across a fat book by the sabermetric founding father Bill James.  We’re both big baseball fans, and have enjoyed James’ insightful, irreverent, and think-outside-the-box approach to analyzing baseball.  He’s been creative enough to get hired by the Boston Red Sox, and successful enough to have contributed to their three World Series titles this century.  But the book my dad found was not at all about baseball.  Instead, Bill James published a critically-acclaimed well-received, contrarian book on the history of famous crimes in America—going back to 1800!  For an independent thinking analyst like James, who writes with both wit and snark, this is a gift combining social commentary and entertainment.

The book, titled Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, is the fruit of the author’s lifelong interest in the kind of crime stories that intrigue the media and general public.  James has read over 1000 crime books going back to his teen years, and has thought long and hard about what popular crime tells us about our society that cares so much about it.  And he doesn’t miss commenting and reflecting on many of the most important issues and crimes.  The book jacket lists some of the more famous criminal cases.  You might remember a few of them.  JonBenet Ramsey, the Boston Strangler, Lizzie Borden, the Kennedy Assassination, the Menendez Brothers, Clarence Darrow, O.J. Simpson, Robert Stroud, Lawrencia Bembenek, Sacco and Vanzetti, Truman Capote’s historical fiction In Cold Blood, Ten Bundy, Carly Chessman, the Lindbergh Baby, the Black Dahlia, Sam Sheppard of The Fugitive Fame, crimes of the Wild West, Mary Phagan, Rabbi Neulander, Bernard Goetz, and the Zodiac.

A few of James’ verdicts:

  • JonBenet Ramsey‘s parents didn’t do it.  The killer is probably a non-suspect who was out to stick it to the Ramsey family for hatred, jealousy, or personal spite.
  • JFK was shot and killed by a “second shooter.”  But the fatal shot (not from Lee Harvey Oswald) was probably an accidental shot from the Secret Service car following the president’s car.  That would explain a coverup.
  • O.J. Simpson was guilty as sin.  But he certainly would have been convicted if he was tried by his peers in his community (rich white people).  Aside from the venue, the largest share of blame goes to Judge Ito who let the trial become a media circus, which played into the defense’s favor.
  • Despite Harrison Ford’s objections, Dr. Sam Sheppard did kill his wife.  The one-armed man (if there even was one) was either an accomplice or a hit man.  But nonetheless, The Fugitive was a great TV show and movie.
  • The Boston Strangler could not have been guilty of all the murders pinned on him.  But the crimes in the city were almost certainly committed by one man, probably someone who lived near a stop on the newly commissioned Green Line train.  And Albert DeSalvo was most likely not the culprit.  He just wanted attention.  Sicko.
  • The Zodiac was not Arthur Leigh Allen.  He was a man (or a small group of men acting together) who was a brilliant criminal mind, but had lousy spelling and penmanship.  His letters weren’t disguised as simple and ignorant.  They were transparently revealing the kind of man the Zodiac was.  He likely kept on killing after the letters stopped coming in, and at some point he was probably arrested, killed, or simply died off.  We’ll probably never know who he was.

But it’s not just James’ verdicts that make Popular Crime a fascinating read.  His rambling commentary on the meaning of popular crime will remain far more relevant and thought-provoking after the memory of a crime fades into the past.  What are some of James’ interesting ideas?

  1. Serial killers have always been with us.  For years and years police and professional criminologists denied their existence.  But as more information became available on the criminal mind, as forensic science developed, and as old prejudices died hard, it became clear that people who kill lots of people, one at a time, are not a new breed.
  2. America is on the whole becoming less and less violent.  Believe it!  The progressive passing of laws regulating firearms seems to have brought the crime rate down from historic highs (in this country) in the early 20th century.  But James seems to think that when, as a culture, we finally strike the right balance between freedom to bear arms and gun regulations, then we will virtually eliminate violent crime.  Don’t believe it!  Here James reveals his Pelagian anthropology, that man is basically good, and that law and good hearts will (nearly) lead to a crimeless utopian future.  It is as if, as an analyst, he sees the murder trendline going down and then assumes the eventual destination is zero.  I suggest a broader view of history paints a more realistic picture.  Violence and murder have been with us since Cain murdered his brother Abel.  Didn’t need a gun either.
  3. Popular crime is a healthy phenomenon.  When the media follows crimes and brings them into our living rooms with incessant talk, analysis, and journalism, this serves to awaken the public to the dangerous people around us.  We come to better understand ourselves as a society when we are all thinking, sharing, debating, and trying to solve problems that are commonly set before us.
  4. The penal system is totally broken and it can easily be fixed.  The large prisons serve to harden non-violent criminals, molding them into more violent people just to survive the few who pose a real threat to the majority prison population that just wants to get along.  Put the most violent criminals away in the same place.  Transfer the non-violent offenders to small jails located in every community.  Guard them with one or two officers.  Give them scaled incentives and privileges for good behavior and demonstrated responsibility.  This would fix the economic disaster that is the penal system and would remove many of the obstacles to personal rehabilitation.
  5. The rules governing jury sequestering are sometimes nonsensical.  There is nothing more maddening for the public than following a trial with a knowledge of crucial evidence that the jury, based on the rules, is not allowed to either have or consider.  This creates public distrust and cynicism regarding our justice system.  There has to be a better way.  After all, the justice system is our system.  It works for us.  Therefore we should reform it to allow the guilty to somehow face all the evidence both for and against them.  Within the bounds of reason and fairness.  But that’s why we get to make the rules of the game.
  6. Popular crime books are mostly useless speculation and breeding grounds for cockamamie theories.  They are usually good for entertainment, but generally not for getting to the truth of a mystery.  The books that are useful for research and thinking carefully about what really might have happened are few and far between.  They are worth whatever they cost.  If you enjoy popular crime books, find them and buy them.  James just happens to sprinkle his recommended reading list throughout his running commentary.  In fact, one of the secondary purposes of his book is to recommend crime books.  He also names those you can pass by.

If you’re looking for an intelligent, history of popular crime for adults from a very intelligent, non-scholarly, non-historian, then Popular Crime is a good fit.  You won’t find any footnotes here!  If famous crimes fascinate you, then James’ compendium is like an encyclopedia, book review, and blog rolled into one.  If you appreciate Bill James’ writings on baseball, then you won’t want to miss this one (although realize there is no need here for mathematical analysis such as sabermetrics).  You’ll also want to check out this interview at Grantland with Bill James regarding the book.  And if you have a warped sense of humor like me, and enjoy laughing while you’re seriously pondering the dark underbelly of society (and your own heart), then Popular Crime will tickle your funny bone and stimulate your mind.

Here is a Google Preview of Popular Crime.

Here are a few published reviews of Popular Crime:

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