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Stew Book Review: ‘Popular Crime’ by Bill James

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Bill James always sounds exactly like Bill James, no matter if he's writing about baseball, football, basketball or crime. He asks an interesting question, takes an interesting, often provocative perspective, and reasons his way through it, using a combination of logic and arbitrarily assigned point values. In baseball, these arbitrarily assigned point values form the backbone of a number of well-known stats, such as Game Score and his Hall of Fame predictors.

Though there are no sports to be found in his latest book, "Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence,"  he uses these kind of statistical metrics all the same:

Suppose that it takes 100 points' worth of evidence to convict a person beyond a reasonable doubt. How many points do you give to the DNA evidence? The answer is fairly apparent: It has to be about 80 points.

He has a number of points to make, but it being Bill James, he's more preoccupied with telling good stories and with asking provocative questions than with developing a single thesis throughout the entire book. At the beginning, he announces that the book has three main themes: famous crimes, the subject of crime in general, and books that have been written about crimes. And that's telling, as is the word "reflections" in the title: the book is about those subjects, rather than representing any single argument regarding them. His one real argument is a simple justification for writing about the topic: he believes that the subject itself is of greater importance than most people are generally willing to admit. On that, he makes a compelling case: {YSP:MORE}

If you read a history of metropolitan police departments, I am certain that it will reference the significance of the Mary Rogers case in leading to the re-organization of the New York police department in 1845. If you read the early history of abortion law, I am confident that it will reference the Mary Rogers story. If you study the history of the detective story, I feel sure that you will find that the Mary Rogers stories were critical to that genre's breaking out of its narrow early trench, and becoming part of the culture ... But if you read a history of America in the 1840s, it is likely that not a word will be said about Mary Rogers.

Indeed, the Mary Rogers story is a fascinating one, and it's one I'd never read before. Nor had I heard of Erich Muenter, or Moman Pruiett, or Charlie Ross; I learned a great deal about more famous cases about which I was relatively ignorant, including Sam Sheppard, Caryl Chessman, the Boston Strangler, Lizzy Borden, the Lindbergh baby, and even JonBenet Ramsey. James is very well-read, and he strikes a very comfortable tone, conversational, somber when necessary but often funny.

However, he is not a systematic writer; he can be reasonably thorough when he wants to be, but he spends vastly different amounts of time on different crimes. He lists 96 different crimes in the table of contents, but while he spends 25 pages on the JonBenet Ramsey case, and 12 pages each on the Kennedy Assassination and the Lindbergh baby, he spends just six pages on the O.J. Simpson case, and he dispenses with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in less than a page. He closes the book with lightning-round style treatments of 18 other cases, which he describes according to a shorthand classification system he introduced earlier in the book. For example, the Ray Lewis case was a CV 6, "a celebrity story about a sudden outbreak of violence" that ranked a 6 on a 1-10 scale.

There's a reason I said "modus operandi" above, instead of "methodology": James is a storyteller, not a scientist. He is very good at explaining exactly why he holds his opinions, from an inadvertent second shooter firing on President Kennedy, to the probable innocence of Lizzy Borden and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey, but his explanations are informal rather than formal -- like his 100-point scale to illustrate the burden of proof.

None of the material in the book comes from primary sources. Crime writing isn't just one of his subjects, it's his source. He doesn't just write about cases and form opinions on what really happened, he also critiques many of the writers, down to their prose style, giving mini-reviews of many of the books that he consulted. He generally does it in an entertaining way -- funny irascibility is something we've all come to know and love about Bill James -- but it's strange to see him spending so much time criticizing writers who had access to the primary sources and evidence that he gleaned second- and third-hand from reading them. Still, as he writes in the first chapter: "I'm just a sarcastic bastard by nature."

This really is an entertaining book, and I can recommend it more highly than his last book, Solid Fool's Gold, an decent but uneven collection of essays originally published on his website. "Popular Crime" is a fun read. But ultimately, like the subject of popular crime itself, James will not be able to be taken as seriously as he would like.

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