Books

'Popular Crime,' Where Good Writing Transcends Genre

The cover of Popular Crime.
Simon and Schuster

Bill James has written a true-crime book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, and you will probably enjoy it if 1) you've enjoyed James's other work; 2) if you've never heard of James, but like the true-crime genre; or 3) if you've never heard of James and you have historically avoided the true-crime genre because so much of the writing therein is so very terrible.

James (who discussed Popular Crime on Weekend Edition in May) is best known as the father of sabermetrics, a school of statistical analysis (for lack of a better term) that attempts to answer questions about baseball using objective data — questions like "Who was really 'better,' Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle?" and "What is the worst MVP selection of all time?" If you don't care for either arithmetic or baseball, you may not find the idea of a master of both those topics discussing the Lindbergh case very appealing, but James isn't the father of sabermetrics because he came up with innovative ways to gauge and discuss performance on the diamond. He did do that, but to a certain extent, thanks to the advent of personal computing at the time he began publishing his annual Baseball Abstracts, and to the work of others in the same field, sabermetrics' time had come.

James's particular gift, the aspect of his work that's in large part responsible for his "father" status, is his writing — specifically, that it's very good.

Very good writing is a rarity, period, but it's a particularly endangered species in baseball books and true crime, genres in which I read voraciously, and the Venn overlap between the two subjects is usually (with the exception of the Black Sox) bad writing. Crappy, strained prose gathers on both baseball bios and serial-killer compendia like cat hair on a black pantleg: overwrought descriptions, flabby entendres, egregious agenda-pushing, abuse of innocent synonyms for "heroic."

James doesn't indulge in the "behold the poetry of our national game" flatulence that many baseball readers have come to accept as an unwelcome given; he's direct, conversational, and able to crack a joke or turn a flavorful phrase without excessive folksiness. He translates the left-brain workings of his formulae for right-brain fans like me who have an easier time following a narrative arc than an algorithm. His essay about the 1985 postseason does contain a fair amount of arithmetic, but it's used in the service of the story, and it's a story itself as well.

James, currently a consultant for the Boston Red Sox, doesn't apply calculus to the famous American crime stories of the last two centuries (although I'd have read an attempt to do so with interest). He just writes about various famous cases in his characteristic frank way, with the occasional elegant turn of phrase that feels almost like an afterthought. Here's James's sketch of 1849 murder victim Dr. George Parkman:

He was a tall, thin man who walked bent forward at the waist with quick, energetic strides, his long nose, long chin and prominent Adam's apply poking forward like a trident, wearing the top hat and tails that were his generation's best effort at dignity.

One sentence gives you a dimensional sketch of a man, and of his time — no bloviating on Victorian values, no self-seriousness. Later, in the context of the Sacco/Venzetti case, James notes of the contemporary divide between haves and have-nots that "Mine owners made huge fortunes enabling them to make showy displays of wealth, while miners lived like rodents," a deceptively simple phrasing that contains all the necessary information. He describes a notorious attorney as "usually divorced," a wonderful term for the Larry Kings of the world, and refers to Lyle and Erik Menendez as "twerps." Such an unserious word for men who murdered their parents for money, and yet, once it's pointed out, you can't help but acknowledge the evident and deep reserves of twerpishness in that family, particularly in Lyle.

James writes an excellent, brisk passage dismissing the idea that the assassination of JFK kicked off the capital-S Sixties as we know them; I don't know that I agree with the alternative he proposes, but that he even raised it got my attention. I definitely don't agree with his conclusions about Lizzie Borden, or his contention that "Michael Jackson was never at any point in his life one of the 100 most famous people in the world."

You may agree with his work in those areas, but then find his take on Lindbergh, or Bambi Bembenek, or Bundy absurd. You may think his proposal for a radical overhaul of the U.S. corrections system is brilliant, or unworkable, or an excuse to do some off-putting complaining about liberals; you may think all three things about it, as I did. What you will not think is that it's boring, or that a proofreader needs to give her paycheck back. Popular Crime does what James has historically done so well in his baseball writing — it asks questions that seem to have no answers, and tries to answer them anyway, as clearly as possible.

I've heard James mention that he began the project — more than 20 years ago — because he too reads true-crime books voraciously, and saw no reason why he couldn't write one himself, an unsucky one. The result is a fascinating read that also recommends (or doesn't) other titles in the genre, and isn't afraid to snark on the writing. James's takedown of Mark Pettit's overview of the John Joubert case, A Time To Kill:

Pettit's book is OK, short and to the point, although it is punctuated with regrettable sentences such as "The teenager gasped at the red-hot streamer of pain that lanced through his body" ... John Joubert was executed in Nebraska in 1996. Pettit's editor is still at large.

Heh.

Best of all, James defends those of us who care deeply about true crime — or baseball, or coin-collecting, or Madonna, or any other subject that's deemed fluffy or "pop," and is therefore not held to the intellectual or craftsmanship standard of something like literary fiction. And he does it with typical concision: "[P]eople have a legitimate need to enjoy their lives. To pursue the things that make life enjoyable is not un-serious."

This is what I like about James's writing and his approach to it. He takes his work and his subjects seriously, but he doesn't take himself seriously. He says what he thinks, and sends you on your way — to a local bookshop to buy Popular Crime, I hope, because it's well-written, thought-provoking, and ungory.

Sarah D. Bunting writes about baseball, Bembenek, and twerps at TomatoNation.com.

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