Sunday, December 11, 2016

Popular Crime (2011)

I was familiar with Bill James before I lost interest in baseball, and with some idea of his stature there (still growing I believe), but reviews of his lengthy meditation on true crime literature made me wary in advance. It's true that James attempts some statistical analysis here, much of which is just kind of silly, and also that he has some strange and alienating ideas. But who doesn't, in this realm? He is as much a wonderful read as ever when he enters into certain free-flowing yet steady currents of thought. First, I really appreciate his appreciation of true crime literature itself, in all its low-class stigma and strange and often badly written glories. Among other things I was happy to find James completely at ease in one of its greatest attractions: second-guessing everyone in sight. The police, prosecutors, and media, of course, of course, of course, and in approximately that order. Also juries and suspects. Anyone, literally. Anything that looks remotely suspicious from the vantage of reading a book in your living room trying to figure out how these blasted crimes happen and investigations go so wrong and it all becomes mysterious and deeply knowable-yet-unknowable, like the tricks of stage magicians, eternally nagging away. Plus human primal drama by the gallon—really. At its most base it is probably outrage porn that draws many, but that doesn't make it any less profound or fascinating or repulsive. My particular interests diverge some from James's so he has missed some obvious cases by my lights, such as the West Memphis Three, but often enough he is on to cases and books I hadn't known. It wasn't long before my secondary mission was grabbing titles, authors, and cases for future binges.

I thought James looked most silly (recognizing many others in baseball have seen him as silly and been wrong) attempting to elucidate the paradoxes of Lizzie Borden with a weird point system. I liked his theory of the JFK assassination, that the magic bullet was the accidental firing of a Secret Service gun, because why not? He seems worst to me on '60s crime more generally, veering toward Jack Webb territory with strained theories about liberals, hippies, and especially the Earl Warren Supreme Court. That theme became shrill for me and made me like or trust him less. On the other hand, we are broadly in agreement about the literature. Yes, it is full of ugly photos, bad writing, and human depravity. But it is actually about the most vital and profound issues: life, death, and judgment. Back of that, however, maddeningly, down in the nitty-gritty of the crimes and investigations, it starts to look like the bizarre subatomic world of physics, where forces are at work, but we don't understand them. That's what's so fascinating. We're not always even sure what happened. Thus, for example, the class of cases where people, such as Tim Masters in Fort Collins, Colorado, or indeed the West Memphis Three, are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they didn't do. That's one of James's many classes of true crime literature quarks and such here. He does a nice job of sorting, among other things, and I came away with a long list too. I enjoyed this a lot. Recommended for anyone with an interest in the stuff.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Nice job, to bring up James's storytelling abilities. From his first days as a baseball writer, his talents have been just as much about writing as about baseball. In this case, I found the book frustrating and enlightening, often at the same time. I've never heard "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" the same since.