Book review: ‘Popular Crime’ by Bill James

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Bill James has revolutionized the way baseball mavens think about the game, but his first love has always been death.

Since high school, in addition to demolishing conventional wisdom with his annual “Baseball Abstract,” James has apparently been inhaling true-crime books like, well, a maniac. The result, dressed up with the defensively cerebral title “Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence,” may just be the hastiest book it ever took a man 20 years to write. “Reflections” is putting matters generously. “Observations” comes closer; “Jottings” would just about nail it.

Lacking a consistent thesis, James’ structure is chronological with a vengeance. Over almost 500 pages, he summarizes most every major crime story in history, from Plautius Silvanus’ uxoricide in AD 24 to Michael Jackson’s overdose two years ago — pausing only to second-guess most of the police work, litigation and reporting along the way.

Plautius rates a page, Jackson just a paragraph. This is symptomatic of the book’s shaky pacing, more than any aversion to prurience on the author’s part. The JonBenét Ramsey case commands two full chapters, both pretty impenetrable to anybody who didn’t follow the case as religiously as James has.


Readable to a fault, “Popular Crime” really has only two insurmountable problems: the way the author uses numbers and the way he uses words. Numbers ought to give James a certain home-field advantage, because in baseball he pioneered the use of useful new statistics such as “runs created” to supplement less informative perennials such as “earned run average” and “runs batted in.”

In the wide world of crime, though, James’ idea of statistical computation usually amounts to setting up an arbitrary point system and then weighting evidence based on his idea of its importance. This is sensible to the point of obviousness, but scientific it’s not. Lizzie Borden gets 5 out of 20 points for the reliability of her testimony, but just how incriminating should this be? Quantifying a hunch doesn’t make it any less a hunch.

James’ mania for pseudo-statistics has nothing on his tendency to create gradations within permutations inside of still larger categories. His treatment of one case reads — in its entirety — “On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people (33 including himself) on the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. The story could be classified as N 8, a mass-shooting story.”

That’s N, for a case distinguished primarily by its high number of victims, and 8, on a 10-point scale of notoriety. End of entry. Does James bring anything new to the story by classifying it this way? Or by tagging the Michael Jackson molestation trial as a CF$X 6, for celebrity, fraud, money, sex and widespread but fleeting fame? In point of fact, he doesn’t.

Verbally, James is forever throwing in chatty, childish asides that might be merely annoying in a book about anything but violent death. “Now back to Julius and Ethel and their commie friends,” he says at one point, during a breezy vignette about the Rosenberg case.

Elsewhere he’ll start dropping g’s just for grins, as when he writes about “wife killin’” or “the murderin’ bizness.” None of this is unfunny because it’s irreverent; it’s unfunny because it’s not funny.

Like the best autodidacts, James’ more contrarian opinions can compel genuine interest. For instance, he argues with rare cogency that we need to build smaller prisons. Then he insists that prisons only got so big, in the wake of Caryl Chessman and his fellow jailhouse lawyers, to make room for all those death-row law libraries. This is interesting, but a stretch.

Perhaps unprecedentedly, James also contends that the Immigration Act of 1924 led directly to the Great Depression. This would probably come as news to the Securities and Exchange Commission, but hey, any enemy of nativism is a friend of mine.


Less welcome is James’ decision to blame a supposed post-1963 spike in American crime on 1) the “damned foolishness of the Warren Court” and 2) self-imposed journalistic restraint in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Those of us who consider the advent of Miranda rights and newspaper professionalism to be mostly beneficial developments may naturally elect to disagree.

The problem here isn’t the unfashionability of James’ frequent pronouncements. It’s their utter lack of specificity or development. Was there a post-1963 spike in American crime? Probably there was, but James hasn’t cited any numbers to make his case. We hear about this uptick only long enough for James to pin it gleefully on a couple of his favorite scapegoats.

At one point, James goes so far as to imply that he’s the love child of “In Cold Blood” killer Richard Hickock. But before we can decide whether to take him seriously, he’s busy claiming some Secret Service agent accidentally fired the fatal shot in Dallas that killed President John F. Kennedy, or recommending “The Onion Field” and “To Die For” as his favorite crime movies, or blaming F. Lee Bailey for everything wrong with the criminal justice system. James wants attention as much as the next class clown, but he simply has no attention span.

At times like these, “Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence” resembles nothing so much as the world’s longest tweet. Too many asides, unleavened by subtlety, add up to an affront.


Former San Francisco Chronicle book critic Kipen is the founder of Libros Schmibros, a lending library and used bookshop in Boyle Heights, and can be reached at