Bill James explains in the first chapter of the book that “Popular Crime” is about three things: famous crimes (with an emphasis on crimes that occurred in the United States after 1880), crime in general, and crime books. A far cry from the Baseball Abstracts, for sure – but as I’ve always said, Bill James is a great writer, even setting aside that for which he is justifiably famous – a revolution in the way the baseball establishment views the game and the game’s statistics.
James has something to say about most of the famous crimes you’ve heard of at one point or another during your lifetime – Lizzie Borden, the Kennedy Assassination, the Boston Strangler, O.J. Simpson, The Black Dahlia, Caryl Chessman, the “In Cold Blood” murders, Sam Sheppard, the Zodiac, and Ted Bundy, among many others. On most of those, he sets forth what he believes happened, particularly if what he thinks happened differs from the verdict delivered by the justice system. For example, he very much doubts that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, and very much believes that Sam Sheppard was involved in the planning of his wife’s murder. The assessment that is bound to draw the most attention is how James interprets the evidence in the assassination of President Kennedy, where he reaches a conclusion – that Oswald fired two shots, but that the fatal shot was an accidental bullet coming from the gun of a secret service agent – that I’ve never even heard offered as a theory (which may be only because I haven’t been paying attention).
That last point may be enough to scare some people away from the book, but to that I would reply, “be careful.” James has spent his entire life challenging conventional wisdom, and more often than not he’s come out on the winning side. It’s like the old E.F. Hutton commercial slogan – “when Bill James talks, people should listen.”
James also offers his thoughts on what it would take to reform the prison system (thought-provoking, though I have no idea whether his concepts are even realistic), and attempts to establish a “scoring system” for trials by which one can judge whether justice in a particular case was, in fact, served. And as promised, James also makes comments, mostly brief ones, on dozens of crime books written about the murders and other assorted crimes he writes about in the book.
If you’ve ever read a book by Bill James and enjoyed it, then you’ll enjoy “Popular Crime.” It’s a refreshing look at topics which often spawn writing that is overly academic and self-important.