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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, Mischievious, Amusing-- Great Fun
If you're a reader of true crime books, or a person who watches movies about non-fictional murders, you'll enjoy this discursive and entertaining meditation on (mostly) murder. Bill James is clearly a devotee of American crime, its history and its quirks; here he holds forth on about three dozen famous cases from the last century or so. I've read books on many of these...
Published on July 25, 2011 by Chris Ward

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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Readable, but don't expect it to be "Crime Abstract 2011"
I've been reading Bill James since the 1982 Baseball Abstract, so I was going to read this, too.

Ironically, James is at his best in this book when he just has fun thinking outside the box and plays detective, challenging conventional wisdom on a variety of random crime cases. When he tries to play sabremetrician, however, the results are embarrassing. There's...
Published on May 14, 2011 by T. Frank


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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Readable, but don't expect it to be "Crime Abstract 2011", May 14, 2011
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I've been reading Bill James since the 1982 Baseball Abstract, so I was going to read this, too.

Ironically, James is at his best in this book when he just has fun thinking outside the box and plays detective, challenging conventional wisdom on a variety of random crime cases. When he tries to play sabremetrician, however, the results are embarrassing. There's a murder-classification system that he must have created for data analysis, but then there's no data analysis--perhaps because he correctly realized there was little quantifiable about the series of anecdotes. He tries to create a 100-point guide to guilt or innocence, but the metrics are all pulled out of thin air and are entirely unpersuasive.

But it is good to hear James expose the emperor's clothes on a feature of the American justice system: how much it is a gameshow of obfuscation on both sides, and how little criminal trials have to do with the truth. There are the obvious examples of recent Los Angeles celebrity cases, but the book earns its keep when it explores the historical record with tales of the corruption of Clarence Darrow and other noted criminal defense attorneys.

The book is entirely readable, but it's less a coherent book than a series of anecdotes: your eccentric uncle shooting the breeze about things he wants to talk about on the subject of crime and crime books. One gets the sense that the book wasn't published because it was finished, but it was finished because it was time to be published. So we see themes raised and dropped without rhyme or reason; the organization is chronological. Chronological, but not systematic: for example, the Stanford White case is disposed of quickly with the assumption that the reader already knows about it. (I don't, so I felt let down.) Some crime books get extensive reviews; others don't. As others have noted, it feels insufficiently edited.

I don't regret purchasing it, as I enjoyed reading it, but I can see the potential for disappointment. Don't think of it as a Baseball Abstract revolutionizing the field; it's more like the baseball books James wrote in the 1990s with Rob Neyer where the two dug through the historical archives to tell interesting anecdotes about baseball players in an alphabetical catalog that ended before it even got to the letter B: entertaining in places, inconsistent with spotty insights, and not remotely complete.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Know What You're Getting Into, May 20, 2011
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I enjoyed this book a lot, but I think I would have been better served by understanding exactly what it is before I started. It's subtitled, "Reflections on the Celebration of Violence," and the key word here is "reflections." This book is effectively hundreds of pages made up of a huge number of reflections. A reader searching for a single theme, or thesis that James is positing will be disappointed. Instead, readers should think of it as more of an invitation to go along for the ride as James thinks through a lot of the crimes that have gained popular attention throughout our American history. That's not to say that there aren't a couple of general themes, but the value in this book is simply the opportunity to see and think about these crimes the way Bill James does. He's a fiercely independent thinker, and isn't afraid to weigh in on these issues, though he makes a modest attempt to remain humble in light of his lack of practical experience in these matters. In the end, the book was anything but a waste of time, though I can't really say that I now understand crime in America any better than I did before. That's not the point of the book, of course. But I think I could forgive you for thinking that it's what the book was supposed to be about.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I was looking forward to this one, September 3, 2012
By 
Kevin Killian (San Francisco, CA United States) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (Paperback)
Reading this book is like being in the same room with the author, and for some that must be a virtue, for he creates an intimate tone as though he were telling only you what's on his mind. But the room is a bar and he's like one of those taproom windbags who won't shut up until they've proven how brilliant they are a thousand times, and you just can't get away. If you object to some point he's making, or some twist in his argument that doesn't hold up, he just tells you how stupid you are and once again, how he revolutionized thinking about baseball and now he has a similar gimmick with crime. Even when I agreed with him (as in the Jonbenet Ramsey case) I kept squirming, thinking if this jackass is on my side, then maybe I'm on the wrong side. But usually he's found the answer long ago, and it's often the predictable one. James isn't much for subtlety, for the simple reason that most criminals are not brain scientists, no, most of them do what seems like the easy way out. On the other hand then there's Sam Sheppard. James must have had a fit when he saw The Fugitive with its not very hidden subtext that Sheppard was railroaded. I wish I was with him when the TV show came on the air and seen his rage well up. He's sort of an angry guy, but he's got the answer to everything, and if he doesn't, then the case itself doesn't merit inclusion in a book on popular crime. One of those elastic categories that will fit everything James wants to tell you about, and one that excludes everything he's grown stale on. Oh well, I should have read the Amazon reviews in the first place before plunging into a book with such high expectations.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, Mischievious, Amusing-- Great Fun, July 25, 2011
If you're a reader of true crime books, or a person who watches movies about non-fictional murders, you'll enjoy this discursive and entertaining meditation on (mostly) murder. Bill James is clearly a devotee of American crime, its history and its quirks; here he holds forth on about three dozen famous cases from the last century or so. I've read books on many of these cases, and James always has some amusing and often compelling (and contrarian) analysis to offer.

Lizzie Borden, the Lindbergh Baby, Sam Shepard, the Boston Strangler, JonBenet Ramsay-- these and dozens of others are covered in some detail. James is an inveterate wise-ass, so his commentary is larded with humor as well as trenchant scholarship. His love of statistics stands him in good stead throughout. He applies common-sense argumentation to bolster his opinions, and I enjoyed the book right up to the last chapters. There, he becomes prescriptive and polemical, telling us how to rescue our penal system-- the preachiness is less appealing than what goes before.

Overall, a really fun read for crime aficionados. If you fall into that category, you'll find much to admire-- and to argue with-- in this fine book.
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43 of 55 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Muddled Mess, June 1, 2011
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Where to begin? I don't remember the last time I was so disappointed by a book I'd been looking forward to.

It started as early as page 7. This is where the author began sneering at "the NPR crowd" and intellectuals who "write like trolls." Variations on this theme continued throughout the book. I was surprised to find that Mr. James attended college. I was sure he was a high school dropout with extreme higher education envy. Some of the passages in the book contradicted themselves and seemed illustrative of muddled thinking. His "jokes" often fell flat, like on page 300, where he compared President Obama to Ted Bundy.

The author also displays throughout the book a kind of defensiveness about his topic. He says that "if you are a writer and you try to talk your editor into working on a book about famous crimes, he or she will instantly begin hedging you toward something more...decent." It seems to me that despite what Mr. James says, there are loads of books on famous crimes. Maybe the author's editor was more worried about the limitations of the author than the appropriateness of the topic. (Mr. James describes himself as "not an easy man to edit." I don't doubt it; a giant ego will do that.)

Mr. James enjoys setting up strawman arguments and bashing the heck out of them. He makes many statements about what society, culture, liberals, or academics think about this or that subject and these opinions are presented as fact. For example, he says bookstores are ashamed of their true crime stories and shelve them next to the pornography. He also cites TruTv a lot. TruTv's schedule hasn't had much to do with crime and forensics in the past few years, except for Forensic Files, and I've heard that's being canceled. I don't know where he gets some of these ideas, except possibly out of his nether regions. By the way, don't look for footnotes. Or an organized bibliography. He claims to have read a "thousand or more" crime books. He mentions some of them in the text, and his comments about them are often amusing. Once he noted that a book was well written, and then a paragraph later griped that he didn't understand why it had sold so well! It was also laugh-out-loud funny when he criticized another book for, basically, a lack of documented research. Pot, kettle, black!

I really bought this book because it promised to cover some of the lesser known crimes. This it did, but t here were two problems. First, it seemed that the telling of the stories were secondary to the author's expounding on his convoluted theories on crime. Most stories were preceded by, followed by, or interrupted by Mr. James' over-complicated and arcane classification systems, along with a large dose of pop psychology, (his term). All this was pretty much dreck, in my opinion; the unsupported opinions and meanderings of a self-indulgent dilettante.

The second problem was more troubling. I came to distrust his reporting of the facts of the crime. He spent a lot of time on Lizzie Borden. It happens that I've done a bit of reading on this case recently. Mr. James is convinced that Lizzie didn't do it. That's okay, but he seems to have edited the facts to support his theory. He points out that Lizzie had a good relationship with her fishing buddy father. He pooh poohs the idea that Lizzie had a financial motive for the crime, remarking that she would have inherited her father's fortune anyway

Here's the thing about that. Lizzie wasn't getting any younger and her wealthy skinflint father's penny-pinching ways forced her and her sister to live in an undesirable part of town, in a house with no indoor plumbing or any other modern conveniences that were becoming common. As soon as Lizzie beat the rap and the girls came into their inheritances, they immediately purchased a large house on the fashionable side of town. Lizzie especially revelled in her new lifestyle that included parties and the company of theater folks. No motive? I beg to differ!

The author also doesn't mention that Lizzie's relationship with her father had deteriorated in the days prior to the murders. Lizzie had some pet pigeons in cages in the family barn. Daddy thought the birds were attracting undesirable neighborhood youths, and so a short time prior to his death, he decapitated the birds and left the remains for Lizzie to find.

Also, although Mr. James mentions that Lizzie's sister was away from home at the time of the killings, he doesn't tell you why. It turns out that both Emma and Lizzie left home in a snit, to stay with relatives out of town. It seems that dear old dad was arranging to sell or transfer property to one of his wife's relatives (not the first time he had done something similar). The girls had a sentimental attachment to this particular property where they had spent some happy times, and were upset about this. When Lizzie came back to town, she actually stayed at a boarding house in town for a while, rather than return to the family residence. When she did come home, the killings followed in short order.

Thus, it appeared the author omitted information that didn't support his case. This made me wonder about the cases I wasn't so familiar with. Were the facts in those cases bent too? I don't know, but I do know that some of his statements about the criminal justice system are completely false. Late in the book, during one of his rants, he claims that an individual on bail, before or after conviction, gets credit for any time on bail against the service of whatever sentence he receives. I worked in the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania between 1970 and 2005, and I can tell you that this is absolutely not true in Pennsylvania. A bit of Googling tells me it's not true in New York or Florida. I don't believe it is true anywhere in the U.S. Once again, the lack of documentation makes it impossible to discover where Mr. James came by this misinformation. Maybe he enjoys being indignant too much to let facts get in the way.

So, all in all, this book is twenty years' worth (that's how long he says it took to write it) of an amateur's musings on the perceived failings of the US criminal justice system, interspersed with crime tales, at least one of which has significant omissions. Decide for yourself whether it's worth your time. I know that it will not remain on my shelf.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag, February 12, 2012
I love Bill James' baseball writing and enjoyed parts of this book very much. Here is the problem with Bill James and popular crime: years ago he wrote this wonderful scathing defense of Pete Rose which of course Rose later debunked by admitting that he, Rose, did in fact bet on baseball. In other words, Bill James can be just as wrong as any of us in assessing the guilt or innocence of another person, although he can do so do with considerable literary style. He does a good job of questioning the innocence of Sam Sheppard but trips all over himself in trying to let Lizzie Borden off the hook. A fun read, but unlike most of James' writings, this book is not a keeper and will be part of a yard sale or book drop-off in five years. At which time
I hope you buy it off me and enjoy it.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Jumbled, Repetitious Mess, October 3, 2012
By 
Thomas Parker (Colton, California USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (Paperback)
Early on in its almost 500 pages, James indicates that this book will be a study of the place of true crime stories in american culture, how their role has evolved over time, and the positive and negative effects that our fascination with such stories has on our society. This seemed to me to be an interesting subject. What the book turned out to be, however, was mostly the recounting of many american crimes from the 18th century to today, some famous and some not, using them as springboards for James to blather on about whatever he had on his mind at the time - politics, the law, prison reform, statistics, the meaning of evidence, problems with police proceedures, the excesses of the press, the faults of crime book writers, and on and on and on. Many of these topics are themselves quite interesting and James frequently has insightful things to say about them, but I found his scattershot method (and I'm being very generous in calling it a method) increasingly annoying. The book remained marginally readable because the crimes that James talks about are inherently interesting and because he can be an engaging writer - on a small scale, as in good chapters on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Zodiac killer. But in terms of organization and internal coherence, Popular Crime may be the worst book I've ever read - a jumbled, repetitous mess. Intelligent as he is, James is a writer without discipline, and if I were in charge of Scribners, his "editor" would be a man without a job.
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121 of 164 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointing, May 12, 2011
By 
DWillis "DWillis" (Washington, DC United States) - See all my reviews
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I've been a fan of Bill James for 30 years. He heavily influenced my thinking as a baseball fan, and more importantly, as a business executive and as a citizen. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that Bill James taught me how to think critically. I learned as much from James's works over the years as I did from any professor, any manager, or any mentor.

So it's painful for me to write that this book is a disappointment pretty much across the board. It has a few positives. The book serves as a decent basic history of violent crime in the United States. And there's a fair bit of analysis of the evolution of the criminal justice system in the US as well.

However, the book's significant flaws seriously overwhelm its minor strengths. In my opinion these include the following:

1.) James is clearly self-conscious and defensive about his topic. He spends way too much time defending his interest in the history of crime in the face of various straw man arguments. James certainly has the right to be interested in, and to write about, anything he chooses. But far too much of the text is devoted to trying to convince the reader that it's not only OK to be interested in this topic, but that society is better off because of our fascination with the OJ murders, the Natalee Holloway case, the Black Dahlia, and so forth. Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much. The people who buy this book by definition have some interest in the topic. When the author spends page after page debating an argument about the value of the topic - an argument in which there is no opposing voice other than the straw men James invents - one eventually concludes that James himself is struggling with the validity of his own preoccupation.

2.) James's overt contempt for the Warren and Burger courts permeates the narrative to an extent that distracts from the book ostensible purpose. Rather than serving as a history of criminal activity, the book eventually seems more a thinly-veiled attack on those who believe that a person accused of a crime should have certain basic rights in order to defend himself. One interpretation of judicial history is that it is a constant search for some equilibirum among three competing aims: the need for a society to protect itself, the need for justice, and the rights of those accused of crimes to defend themselves. James unequivocally believes that as a society we have veered too far toward the latter objective, and more specifically that we did so during the 1960s and 1970s. He's certainly entitled to his opinion, but (a) if he wanted to write that book, he really should have titled and publicized it as such and (b) his own recounting of the history of crime in the US makes clear just how often innocent people - or people who quite likely were innocent - were convicted and even sentenced to death because the justice system in this country did not adequately protect them. Despite spending chapter after chapter on the cases of Leo Frank, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jimmy Smith, Albert De Salvo and others - all of whom James believes were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted and/or executed - he still feels the need to bludgeon the reader with a series of polemics that amount to one idea: that liberals of the 60s and 70s granted too many rights to the accused and not enough to the police and judiciary. If he truly believes that, he chose an awfully awkward text in which to make his case. The conclusion I draw from the work is exactly the opposite: that if anything, we have been far too willing as a society throughout our history to convict - first in our minds and then in the courts - the first person accused of a crime.

(3) Perhaps the most disappointing section of the book is the brief treatment (roughly 12 pages) James gives to the JFK assassination. Here again James is certainly entitled to his opinions, but his presentation is shoddy, condescending, and frankly mind-boggling in its sophmoric approach to the subject. Further, it quickly becomes apparent that James is not familiar with much, if any, of the research that has been done on this case in the past two decades. James essentially endorses Gerald Posner's Case Closed as the definitive work on the subject. Actually, James is almost absurdly ingratiating in his praise of Posner: "I feel that Posner has accomplished a public service in putting it together." This is problematic on many levels. First, in the almost 20 years since Case Closed was published, many authors have argued persuasively against Posner, and in fact serious allegations have been made as to the integrity of Posner's research. James deals with none of this, and instead resorts to the usual ad hominems when referencing alternate interpretations of the evidence ("silly", "specious", "conspiracy theorists"). Second, the other book that James endorses (Mortal Error by Bonar Menninger) contradicts Posner's primary finding! Menninger concludes there was a second, albeit accidental, shooter. Posner insists there were no bullets fired by anyone but Oswald. You can't have it both ways Bill. The JFK assassination is a complex topic, on which hundreds of books have been written. To attempt to end the debate with 12 pages, while dealing with only one or two issues, neither of which are truly relevant to the question of whether a conspiracy existed, is just sloppy. Either give this topic the attention it deserves, and attempt to bring some new evidence or insight to it, or leave it for another book.
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26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but seriously flawed, May 9, 2011
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I had been looking forward to this book and I was very surprised by what I got. Overall, it's a confused mess. It follows the format of a series of roughly chronological re-tellings of famous crimes, with the author's views and analysis occasionally inserted at random. Sometimes these asides are insightful, sometimes they are trite, but they don't seem to be part of any coherent thesis. In fact, the whole book has a very conversational feel, which is sometimes amusing but mostly a distraction.

This can still be an entertaining read--it is about famous crimes after all--but it especially suffers from a lack of editing. This feels like an early first draft, with asides that go nowhere, repetitions, and errors abounding. If a strong editor had worked at length with Mr. James on this, it could have been a much better read.

But in any case, the chief flaw of this book is that the author just does not have any special insight into the subject matter, despite his clear interest. This will disappoint fans of his earlier work, which is some of the best baseball writing around.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Selectively exhaustive, consistently unfocused, January 7, 2013
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This review is from: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (Paperback)
Like some other reviewers, I followed James' reputation from his well-respected writing about baseball, only to find this book easily one of the most disappointing I've ever read. Subtitled "Reflections on the Celebration of Violence," it is just that--loosely connected reflections that go on without any unifying argument for 460+ pages. If James had a rationale for sectioning the book into its 34 chapters, I am still not sure what it is, short of to say, "here's yet another crime story I've read about." He begins and ends expressing an intention to analyze the cultural significance of crime stories, but leaves the actual work of doing so incomplete. The book also rampantly violates one of my biggest writing pet peeves: paragraphs with no topic sentences. James habitually begins paragraphs with factual details (a representative example: "Mary Phagan was thirteen years old, four feet, eleven inches tall, and worked in a pencil factory in Atlanta" [p. 108]), leaving the reader to wait passively for the big reveal of their significance (and sometimes it never comes). Structural problems aside, James seems unable to settle on a consistent authorial position: is he an amateur sleuth trying to "solve" high profile cases? a glorified book reviewer? a tongue-in-cheek social critic who's qualified to make sweeping generalizations about American history because he "lived through" the sixties? I was ready to quit reading after 50 pages or so, but pushed through because of the interesting subject matter and because I hoped that the book might offer some redeeming insight somewhere. It never did.
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Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence
Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James (Paperback - May 8, 2012)
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