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Inspecting A History Of Infamy In 'Popular Crime'

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Inspecting A History Of Infamy In 'Popular Crime'

Author Interviews

Inspecting A History Of Infamy In 'Popular Crime'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

Time magazine has called Bill James one of the 100 most influential people in the world; quite a billing for someone who was working as a night watchman at a pork and beans factory in the 1970s, when he began to write about baseball. Bill James envisioned new statistics like runs created, rather than runs, hits and errors. And his baseball abstract changed baseball more powerfully than any invention since the leather glove. He's currently a senior advisor to the Boston Red Sox.

But Bill James is also a passionate reader, especially of crime stories. And he's written a new, huge book that presents his particular glimpses into famous crime stories. It's called "Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence."

Bill James joins us from member station KANU in Lawrence, Kansas.

Mr. James, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BILL JAMES (Author, "Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence"): Thank you for having me on this.

SIMON: You can see several points in this book: Look, Im not a criminologist, I'm not a sociologist, I'm not a psychologist. So what is it when it comes to you and crime?

Mr. JAMES: I'm not an expert in anything thats established; that 99 percent of my book is based on writing about other writers writing about crimes.

SIMON: A series of murders were committed in Boston in the early 1960s -, murders of 13 single women from the age of 19, I guess, into their 70's - were lumped under the title The Boston Strangler. A man named Albert DeSalvo confessed to being The Boston Strangler. That became a famous film, starring Tony Curtis. Was, in your judgment, Albert DeSalvo The Boston Strangler?

Mr. JAMES: Well, the hero of that story is a Boston woman named Susan Kelly who wrote a book which convinced me. And I adopted her point of view and advocated it with some of my own interpretation. Her point of view is basically no evidence that Albert DeSalvo was The Boston Strangler. And it's very improbable that he was.

SIMON: He did confess.

Mr. JAMES: Yes. And about a month before he confessed, a psychiatrist who knew him very well testified under oath that he was delusional and incompetent to stand trial.

Mr. JAMES: But I mean a lot of people listening to this are wondering - to restate the obvious - he confessed. I mean why would someone who wasn't guilty of a string of murders confess?

Mr. JAMES: There are, I believe, many more false confessions to murders than true confessions. In fact, if I could freelance for just a second, I would be in favor of laws strictly limiting what can be described as a confession in a court room. Because what happens in too many cases is the police know how to get somebody to confess to something. They know how to make that happen and they will make it happen, and they get a sort of half confession which they -the prosecutor then describes relentlessly as a confession when in reality it was just something like, yeah, I guess she must be dead by now.

The problem of false confessions is one of the nastiest problems that besets a serious murder trial.

SIMON: Sam Sheppard, Dr. Sam Sheppard, famous 1954 Cleveland murder case; a doctor accused of murdering his wife, Marilyn, famously the inspiration for "The Fugitive" TV series and movie.

The Sheppard case is considered to be the one that establish the idea that excessive press coverage could twist justice in a case. Do you agree?

Mr. JAMES: The Supreme Court agreed. The Supreme Court used the Sheppard case to say that the courts had a responsibility to make the case stand free of flying journalistic debris. It's extremely damaging to a fair trial to have people reaching judgment about the case in the newspapers and on the radios, before the facts are heard in a case.

I would not encourage anybody to think we've gotten past that. The reality is that we still have that issue and we still have as much or more than we did in 1966.

SIMON: Mr. James, who killed JonBenet Ramsey?

Mr. JAMES: We don't know yet. We will know. They have his DNA. Logic tells you if they find his DNA that it's a process of elimination to eventually find him.

SIMON: Not her parents, in any case.

Mr. JAMES: Absolutely not her parents. And it's a horrible thing what happened to her parents, that within weeks of losing their daughter in the hardest way one can imagine, they became the butt of jokes by late-night television comedians. This happened essentially because the local authorities, trying to reduce the pressure on themselves, led the news media to a premature conclusion that they were involved in the crime, which in truth, they very clearly were not.

SIMON: You think that this day and that some smart and informed people have for crime stories, actually my have a harmful effect on how we handle it in our society.

Mr. JAMES: Crime stories have a huge ugh factor. And because people don't want to talk about those kinds of things, we will very often find that the discussion turns off at a point at which it should be asking the most interesting question. So what I was trying to get to in the book was let's push on past the ugh factor.

SIMON: Bill James, the man who changed the way we see baseball, author of a new book, Popular Crime: Reflections of the Celebration of Violence.

Thanks so much, Mr. James.

Mr. JAMES: Thank you.

SIMON: And you can read an excerpt about a London girls account of her 18th century kidnapping on our website,

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