JonBenét Ramsey

On the other hand, James also suspects that the upheavals of the 1960s liberated demonic energies. In particular, he argues that the liberal Supreme Court’s procedural decisions shackled cops and, worse, tilted the rules toward freeing crooks from prison too quickly. He says when he taught English to Kansas prisoners in the 1970s, one of his students, a murderer serving a life sentence, was released after only two years.

James’s biggest contribution has been to bring an independent mind to reinterpreting how America has changed and why. But are extraordinary man-bites-dog crime stories the ideal subject matter for Bill James, analyzer of averages? His baseball detective work—defending a guilty Pete Rose against allegations of betting on ballgames while James ignored the steroids epidemic—isn’t encouraging. 

James is an outstanding arguer, but not a vivid narrator. Nor is James a systematic or particularly precise thinker, which allows lawyers to complain that he criticizes them but doesn’t offer an alternative. Paradoxically, that’s why James’s rambling, discursive, miscellaneous essays on baseball statistics proved more valuable a generation ago than the premature attempts of more scientifically ambitious number-crunchers such as Pete Palmer.

Nor does James use what few reliable crime statistics are available. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has published official homicide numbers since 1976, but they’re dull and depressing. Although blacks commit the majority of murders, the crime stories that sell books are overwhelmingly about whites killing whites. James claims that the handsome, articulate Bundy (who attended the 1968 Republican convention as a Nelson Rockefeller supporter) was personally responsible for the emergence of true-crime books as a reliable genre for publishers.

Thus, James devotes nine pages to the famous Zodiac Killer, a white man who murdered five whites in Northern California in the late 60s. Like most, James also ignores the forgotten Zebra Killers, Black Muslim racial terrorists who subsequently murdered at least fifteen whites in San Francisco from 1973-4.

James defends the true-crime genre by claiming that a gentleman’s agreement among press barons to act more respectable after the Lindbergh kidnapping’s tabloid excesses had stifled crime reporting. By 1963, “This led gradually to a criminal justice system that didn’t take serious crime seriously enough, and this contributed to an explosion in the crime rate.”

Popular Crime is a read-250-books-and-write-another-one effort. Although James has a proven record of pattern-recognition ability and solid sense, his book falls short on both counts.



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