July 24, 2014

Bill James, Crime Writer

May 31, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

I have a confession to make. Every time I walk into a bookstore the first two sections I visit are Baseball and True Crime. You would think no two subjects would be further apart, and yet they do have an odd symmetry. Both are treasure troves of curious tales with colorful characters. Both create an endless fascination for those with the time and desire to plunge in. It’s no accident that Stephen King is often seen at Red Sox games.

Bill James' Popular CrimeBill James, baseball stats visionary and “contrarian,” as the book jacket puts it, has now given us Popular Crime (Scribner, $30), a wildly thoughtful history of tabloid violence in America. It is not a book for everyone. Sociologists would no doubt be frustrated over its apt refusal to keep its subject within academic constraints, while crime readers might be put off by the meandering style and occasionally smart-ass tone. I wasn’t. The book is exactly what the subtitle on its jacket suggests: “reflections on the celebration of violence.” If you’re looking for the definitive work on crime, you could poke daggers through this tome day and night. I was more than happy to kick back and just let the notorious Jamesian prose carry me along.

As is prevalent in his baseball writing, James’ skill is the odd, perfect balance of revolutionary analysis and irreverent humor. If this guy wrote an essay about your Thanksgiving dinner, it’s a pretty safe bet you would never think about your stuffing the same way again.

In his introduction, James makes it clear he’s not attempting an all-inclusive treatise, calling himself “a sarcastic bastard by nature,” who has always been fascinated by true crime stories and wanted to explore them in a way no one else has. He insists that popular crime has been far more important to our society than anyone would admit. “If you go to a party populated by the NPR crowd,” he says, “and you start talking about JonBenet Ramsey, people will look at you as if you had forgotten your pants.”

James’ historical tour of our ghastliest deeds is the main event, though. He spends pages on famous unresolved crimes or the ones he finds most fascinating, while giving our more recent media-saturated ones shorter shrift. For instance, I had little knowledge of the 1841 case of Mary Rogers, a 19-year-old cigar store girl in New York City who was found strangled in New Jersey, and spawned Edgar Allan Poe’s great short story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Ever hear of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, who left chopped-up bodies of tramps and prostitutes all over Cleveland’s lakefront during the 1930s? Me neither, and James spends an entire chapter on that case. The Hall/Mills and Snyder/Gray incidents of the ’20s also receive much attention, while the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping is pinpointed as the case that put a 30-year, self-imposed moratorium on lurid murder coverage in the press.

Along the journey, he also provides capsule reviews of books written about the cases he discusses, which I found to be an invaluable resource. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, with good reason, seems to be his all-time favorite, the book that likely spawned the True Crime section in every store, but I had no idea there were five books written about the Boston Strangler, or that famous O.J. officer Mark Fuhrman wrote a decent book about the Martha Moxley case.

James burrows and pecks his way up to the present, culminating in his own lengthy conjecture on the JonBenet Ramsey murder, and while he often pauses for bizarre tangents—such as one on the U.S. auto industry—the inner workings of his amazing mind are constantly on display. His lengthy chapter on the unsolved Lizzie Borden murders is riveting, as is his common sense proposal for reforming our overcrowded, non-working prison system.

Suddenly, though, funny bits pop out of nowhere. While describing the cunning Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes in the 1880s, he says “that’s a really sophisticated serial murderer. Jack the Ripper, as much as the British love him, was just some dumb jackass with a knife who ran around slashing hookers.” Later, after trashing a particularly awful book by Mark Pettit about murderer John Joubert, James writes, “John Joubert was executed in Nebraska in 1996. Petit’s editor is still at large.”

What I’ve always loved about James’ work is the way he never takes his brilliance too seriously. I certainly admire sabermetrics and how they’ve revolutionized baseball thought, but my favorite section from any Baseball Abstract was not a discussion of similarity scores, but a 30-page essay called “A History of Being a Kansas City Baseball Fan,” that described growing up a fan of the old Athletics in gloriously thorough detail, before climaxing with an unforgettable analysis and celebration of the 1985 Royals’ championship postseason. As Popular Crime again proves, baseball statistics are just one of Bill James’ guilty pleasures, and only one of the subjects he has thankfully taken the time to alter our brain about.

Jeff Polman’s fictional replay blogs of the 1924 and 1977 seasons can be visited at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com and http://funkyball.wordpress.com. His current venture is The Bragging Rights League, (http://braggingleague.wordpress.com), a “blogella” that flip-flops baseball’s infamous racist past.

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