Bill James’ 'Popular Crime' Wants Us to Learn to Love Crime Stories

Bill James, the baseball guru, says that an obsession with tabloid crime might be a good thing.

“When I was a small kid, I grew up in the newspapers,” Bill James says. “ I grew up in a small town [in Kansas] kind of in the middle of nowhere. My understanding of what was happening in the world was based on the newspapers, so before I was 10 years old, I was reading crime stories. I still do.” He estimates he has read thousands of books about true crimes, and sometime in the '80s, he began working on a book of his own. Finally out this month, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence could be the most entertaining book on a serious subject you will read this year. It is also unlike any book you have ever read on the topic. But anyone who knows anything about the author should have seen that coming.

James, 61, is a first-rate contrarian, a man at war with the cult of the expert. In the '70s and '80s, he self-published a series of books, the Bill James Baseball Abstracts, in which he deployed a sophisticated statistical analysis of his own invention that he called sabermetrics. Long story short (let’s just say that while his books quickly became bestsellers, he was not exactly an overnight hit with the baseball establishment), he wound up radically changing the way people think about the national pastime. Baseball has always been stat happy, but before James, no one ever talked about runs created, range factors, win shares, on-base percentages, or secondary averages. His books forced players, managers, and fans to ditch hunches and instinct and to think about statistics, yes, but think about them better. Teams that took his advice to heart, such as the Oakland Athletics and the Boston Red Sox, for whom he now works as an adviser, have thrived.

Now he wants us to reconsider how we think about violent crime, the legal system, prisons and particularly those murders and kidnappings that inspire tabloid headlines for months on end. In Popular Crime, he surveys three centuries of the mayhem and ensuing courtroom dramas that have captured the American imagination. Some of those cases (the Hall-Mills murder, the Snyder-Gray case) are more or less forgotten. Others (Lizzie Borden, the Black Dahlia, Sam Sheppard, or JonBenet Ramsey) continue to obsess us (“Crime cases tend to be fascinating until you figure out what happened,” James says). Dissecting those cases and dozens more, he creates a compelling and incredibly blood-drenched narrative. But he’s got a lot more than gore on his mind. James thinks a fascination with murders and kidnappings just might be good for us.

At the very least, he wants us to stop thinking of tabloid crime as merely a guilty pleasure. Just because something is lurid, he argues, doesn’t diminish its importance. And just because American history books don’t cover much about the Black Dahlia case or Son of Sam doesn’t mean that you can’t learn a lot about American culture by studying those cases. “We are rather ashamed of our interest in crime stories because it is such a trashy business,” James says in a phone interview from his home in Lawrence, Kansas. “It would be more productive if it weren’t, but it would also be more productive if we got over being ashamed of it. There is much more benefit to society than cost in the public understanding what happens in terrible crimes.”

Such as? “We learn about cases of injustice,” he says. “We learn about cases of police misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct. We learn about inherent risk. It’s easy for people to grow up in our society believing that certain lifestyles are risk free when they certainly are not. The crime stories are a reminder.”

But isn’t there a danger in concentrating exclusively on the sorts of violent crimes that make headlines and the show trials that trail in their wake? Wouldn’t such a weird diet give you a somewhat warped idea of the criminal justice system, not to mention the criminal mind? James wants to split the difference on that one. “It’s true that people are sometimes misled into thinking that the way the system works in the O.J. Simpson case is the way the system works in general, which obviously is not true. But there’s much more information carried to the public than misinformation. That’s a balancing act.”

Popular Crime has its weaknesses. Most of its evidence is anecdotal. Some of its arguments sound a little squishy—did police forces fail to identify serial murderers for decades because, as James insists, they refused to believe in the idea of serial killers or were there also other factors in play? Sometimes, as when he goes off on the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision, he sounds like a crank, albeit a well-informed crank. Such moments are rare, however, because the author so resolutely refuses to talk down to his audience or act like he knows more than he does.

“I have always been much better at asking questions than knowing what the answers were,” James says, insisting that his purpose is not to solve problems but to clarify them by posing “questions to which none of us really knows the answers. Sometimes the question is, is this the appropriate procedure? Is this the best we can do in our treatment of criminals or people accused of crimes? What exactly is evidence, how do you value evidence? Why is it that we are so fascinated by crime stories? Does this do more harm than good? The purpose of the book is to try to frame questions of that nature as starkly as I can and challenge people to think about them.”

Judged by that criteria—did the author accomplish what he set out to do?—the book is a success, thoughtful and thought provoking. It is also gruesome, ghoulish, and appalling—and utterly fascinating. The chapters on Lizzie Borden, Leo Frank, Sam Sheppard, and the Kennedy assassination would by themselves make the book worth reading. Beyond that, Popular Crime is packed with the sort of useless trivia that makes a certain kind of reader (that would be me) forgive an author any transgression. Who knew that Mary Phagan, the teenage girl murdered in the Frank case, and JonBenet Ramsey were both buried in Marietta, Georgia, or that the poet Edgar Lee Masters was Clarence Darrow’s law partner? And some of the trivia is, well, not trivial—what to make of the fact that around the time of World War I, 80 percent of accused murderers in the United States were acquitted, while today the conviction rate for the same crime is 85 percent?

This is a gutsy book—gutsy in the sense that James is one of those passionate amateurs who’s willing to risk making a fool of himself to ask some discomfiting questions. It was a risk worth taking. Popular Crime belongs on that short shelf of oddball American literature that includes such disparate titles as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The Organization Man, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities—books by contrarian outsiders whose only common traits are their unblinking and curatorial attention to detail and their cheerful willingness to spit in the eye of the establishment. As for the dozens of stories James tells along the way, the verdict is unequivocal: pleasure yes, guilty no.