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"Popular Crime" by Bill James
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June 15, 2011, 04:49 PM
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For a long time, Bill James, the famous baseball statistics analyst, has been promising books on non-baseball subjects. Now, he`s delivered one, Popular Crime, on the history of crime stories. I review it in my new column in Taki`s Magazine.
It`s a read-250-books-and-write-another-one effort. James summarizes scores of notorious killings from Lizzie Borden through JonBen?©t Ramsey. He has a proven record of pattern recognition ability and solid sense, so anything he writes is of some interest.
For example, did Bruno Hauptmann really kidnap Charles Lindbergh`s baby in 1932? The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming, says James. What about Dr. Sam Sheppard, whose controversial 1954 murder trial inspired The Fugitive? Guilty, although not as charged; James figures he hired a hitman to kill his wife. O.J.? Oh, c`mon ...
Read the whole thing there.

But the real reason to read Bill James is not to watch him recount single events but to watch him draw inferences from masses of data. But there`s a structural problem with the whole project: popular crime stories are popular precisely because they are Man Bites Dog stories. James is perfectly aware of that (pp. 36-37), but it seems to get him down because he`s always coming up with observations about crime in general that aren`t true about popular crime and thus he can`t use the stories about criminals in his book to illustrate his observations.

For example, he went on The Colbert Report and mentioned in passing that murderers don`t tend to be good looking. A reviewer on Amazon was very offended by that: What about Ted Bundy? What about Robert Chambers, the Central Park Preppie Killer? I think this is a pretty common reaction outside of hardcore baseball statistics fans.

What James needed was to start Popular Crime with a chapter describing Unpopular Crime. He needed to synthesize typical examples of run-of-the-mill crimes that don`t get books written about them. For example, the typical acquaintance killing might be a few people are drinking, one guy says something insulting to another guy, the girls laugh at him, so the humiliated guy gets so mad he goes home and gets his gun. What`s his plan for getting away with premeditated murder? He kinda hopes the cops don`t notice the dead body.

James needs that kind of frame for his book.