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Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Bill James

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1671271,264 (3.32)14
Member:Opinionated
Title:Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence
Authors:Bill James
Info:Scribner (2012), Paperback, 512 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
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Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James (2011)

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Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
I enjoyed the book. I think he did a good job highlighting many of the cases and made his point how the media drives the popularity of a case and can in some cases taint it in the criminal justice system. My only problem with James is he should keep his personal view on politics to himself. ( )
  crazyjster | May 9, 2013 |
I read this book with fascination, horror, and wonder at how James could take a sensational topic and bring meaning to it in his own inimitable way. As an analyst of baseball, James is the statistician without peer. As a connoisseur of tabloid news, he brings a deeper understanding of what binds these tales together, these murders and kidnappings, and why they appeal to us year after year, even as each one is advertised as the "murder of the century." Still, it is one thing to delve into a single murder and learn in detail what happened before, during and after a psychopath delivered the final blow, and how that person is still human while being painted a monster, and another thing to read about hundreds of crimes in succession, one more lurid than the next. It was hard to finish the book because of the sheer volume of serial murderers he includes.

Why couldn't the book even with its detailed table of contents and index have contained a bibliography with all of the books James recommends as follow up reading? I wish the editors had considered this book as a potential reference. And I wonder what lawyers and advocates for prison reform think of this book. James seems to have a thorough disdain for both groups.

( )
  paakre | Apr 27, 2013 |
This book is, to use a "popular" phrase, a hot mess. I'd never read anything by Bill James before, but apparently he's a quite well-known writer on baseball. In Popular Crime, his stated purpose is to trace the history of true crime books, TV, and media coverage and show whether or not they are "bad" for society. Unfortunately, he doesn't come anywhere near meeting his goals.

While James lays out the crimes in chronological order, he doesn't trace the history of media coverage of famous murders like he claims he's going to. For example, while he mentions the Helen Jewett case in one of the early chapters, and how much media coverage it received, he declines to discuss it at any length because (and I'm paraphrasing here) too many books have already been written about it. Which had me going, "Wait? What? Isn't that what your book is supposed to be about?"

There are some famous murders that James go into great detail about, some that he skips altogether except for a quick mention, and some that he recaps briefly in a way that leaves you wanting more.

James talks about his editor at several points in the book, as in "if my editor chooses to leave this in." (Again, paraphrased, but you get the picture.) This is bizarre, as I was pretty sure by about 50 pages in that James didn't have an editor, as it seems every tangent was followed. The most infuriating for me was when James tried to establish a point system (I'm not kidding) for how much value to place on evidence at a trial, with a certain number of points being necessary to convict. Similarly, he tries to set up a scale for how likely murders are to become famous. He spends page after page on these pseudo-statistics and it gets to be mind-numblingly dull.

James also has lots of thoughts and theories about the criminal justice system, including a totally unfeasible prison reform model. His book becomes just as much about that as it does about true crime.

As far as analyzing the true crime industry, he ends up reviewing books on many of the cases he writes about. At first, I wrote down James's recommendations, but then I figured out we have very different criteria for what makes a good book. For example, I loved Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision, which James seems to think was too long and detailed, and therefore dull. Hello, have you read your own book?

The worst part is that James is actually a good writer. Some of the chapters, especially those on unsolved murders and famously controversial cases, were riveting. Unfortunately, these parts are overshadowed by overall inconsistency and James's attempt to include everything but the kitchen sink. There are the kernels of several different, good, books inside of this bulky mess. Seriously, if James had an editor, they didn't do a very good job.

One final note before I wrap up: There are no footnotes, endnotes, or even a bibliography. In a book about media coverage of true crime. Really? When he's discussing a certain book he'll include the title, author, and publisher in the body of the paragraph. But for the most part, we have no idea where he's getting any of his information from. I want to see references to newspaper articles! I know there are books he's referring to that he doesn't mention! What are they? At one point James says he worked on this book for ten years, and you can tell he's done a lot of research, so why couldn't he show us the research he's done? Instead, we are left to rely on James himself, and if he were a literary character, he would definitely be an unreliable narrator.

Wow, I didn't realize how many problems I had with this book until I started typing up my review. It sounds like I really hated the book, but while I was reading it I couldn't put it down. I guess I would recommend it if you're already familiar with the true crime genre, and either have the patience to wade through multiple tangents and statistics, or are willing to skip those parts to get to the meaty bits. Two stars. ( )
  allthesedarnbooks | Feb 27, 2013 |
I bought this book on a whim when visiting the USA. I'd never heard of Bill James, but apparently he is well known over there. I thought that a book that explored the celebration of violence in popular culture could be very interesting. This isn't really that book though. What it is is a cross between a history of celebrated crimes, book reviews of true crime books and general thoughts on crime and punishment. The history of celebrated crimes works best - the book review portion is a bit pointless (after reading James' summary of a crime are you really going to go and read a whole book about it?) and James' criterion for how good the book is seems to be mostly determined by its length. He likes a book to be pacy and snappy you see, and for the story to zip along. Which is odd considering how meandering his own book is.

And James' thoughts on crime and punishment seem to have their heart in the right place, but to be somewhat woolly. I don't know enough about American "justice" to judge really, but are the overcrowding of American large prisons really due to the need for prisoners to access a law library? Really?? However he has good thoughts on rehabilitation vs punishment even if his idea of a prisoner's sentence being something like a loyalty rewards program (get the points, get the privileges) is unlikely to catch on, despite the fact that from the point of view of behavioural economics it probably makes good sense

The best part is the history of well known crimes. But again this is spoiled by James haphazard approach to describing them. Some crimes he assumes that the reader is so familiar with that he just adds some general thoughts. Others he goes into in detail. Sometimes he adds his thoughts as to the guilt or innocence of the accused. Whilst some of these thoughts are well considered, he puts a lot of stock in circumstantial evidence - eg if you and I are both accused, and you have a spotless criminal history and I don't, its probably me who did it. Alright so its more sophisticated than that, but there is a lot of emphasis on circumstance

Still the writing is entertaining and I did learn some things I didn't know (particularly about the Jon Benet Ramsay case). Its a good plane or beach book ( )
1 vote Opinionated | Dec 23, 2012 |
I loved this book! It is not just a list of horrible crimes, but an examination of how popular culture is affected by the "big" crimes. And, conversely, how splashy over-reporting and public opinion affects the investigation of the crime and the system of justice that tries to deal with the situations.

The author describes and analyzes crime throughout our history, focusing on US crimes from 1880 on. He also examines at length the phenomenon of "popular crime": What makes a crime popular? What characteristics make a crime explode in the media? Is this destructive or is there a redeeming social benefit?

I found it an interesting treatment, and I recommend it. ( )
  MerryMary | Jul 11, 2012 |
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This book is dedicated to Phyllis McCarthy, my wife's most gracious mother.
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In Rome in the year 24 AD, the praetor Plaautius Silvanus pushed his wife Apronia out of the window in the middle of the night.
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Presents a cultural analysis of sensational crime in America that profiles such infamous cases as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Black Dahlia murder, and O.J. Simpson's trial to offer insight into topics ranging from evidence practices to radicalism.… (more)

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