Anyone who follows baseball has been influenced by the contributions of sportswriter and historian Bill James. The writer’s classic The Bill James Baseball Abstract has been credited with major innovations in the field of statistical analysis. In his new book, James turns his considerable analytical abilities to an entirely different field of study with Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.
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You’re legendary for your work in baseball. What possessed you to write a book of essays reflecting on tabloid crime in America?
I’ve always been an obsessive reader of crime stories. I’ve been working on the book forever—there are pieces here that were written in the mid-1980s. I was finally determined to finish the damn thing and publish it.
You touch on a vast diversity of popular crime in America, with cases ranging from the Lindbergh kidnapping to the murder of Nancy Spungeon. How did you decide which crimes would best illustrate your points?
There are certain cases, like the Lindbergh kidnapping and O.J. that are so central to the subject that one couldn’t ignore them. Otherwise, I tended to write about cases that have been the subjects of good books. I’m sure there were 200 pieces of this book that didn’t make it into the book. Most of the book was written years ago and had had the benefit of being re-edited 25 times over a period of years.
One of the most interesting chapters of the book involves a very logical system for categorizing crime stories. What applications would such a system serve?
It enables us to see parallels and differences between cases more clearly. The system would force us to ask, as a starting point, what is essential to this case? What is the essence of this story? Every crime case is unique but one key to understanding them is looking at what things cases have in common. It enables us to see cases of injustice in the context of other cases of injustice. It enables us to see innocent-victim cases in the context of other innocent-victim cases. It’s intended to clarify our thinking.
Your last chapter debates the utility of crime reporting. What do you think is beneficial in engaging the public through crime stories?
There are a great many benefits to it, actually. Crime stories bring to light the failures in our system—the failures in our system of policing, the failures in our system of justice. Crime stories, by their nature, force hard questions. What is insanity? What is adulthood? What is self defense? What may a person reasonably do to defend himself?
There are also a great many things wrong with the business of crime reporting. There are many things about it that are unattractive, and cases in which the reporting of crimes interferes with the work of the justice system. We tend to instinctively condemn crime journalism because of these excesses. Part of my argument is that there may be more good here than actual harm.
Why do you suppose a fascination with crime is such an integral element of the human condition?
It’s the other side of the mountain. We’re not radically different from criminals or from crime victims. We know we’re not. We know that these people have departed from us and gone into a place that we do not want to visit, but we want to understand. Reading about these cases is the only way we have of understanding that very dark place within ourselves where we abandon faith and abandon discipline and abandon our sense of self-worth.
Why is it important that people think about Popular Crime as opposed to simply absorbing it as modern entertainment?
The questions are there. Serious and significant issues are embedded within every big crime story. The case of JonBenét Ramsey raises questions. The Ramsey parents suffered a horrendous tragedy. Weeks later comedians were making jokes about it. How does that happen? I was trying to argue that the making of popular entertainment out of horrific events is a serious social phenomenon.
What would surprise the public most about their justice system?
The number of different ways that it can fail. The impression given by books about injustice, by TV shows about cases in which the system failed, is that the system fails only because somebody in a position of authority does wrong: a cop plants evidence, or a DA uses a witness who should not have been used, or a judge frees a criminal who should not have been freed. The reality is that the system of justice can misfire for many different reasons, and relatively few of these involve egregious misconduct.
This book is about crime books as much as it is about crime itself. What did you learn from your survey of the genre?
Crimes have a certain kind of social and psychological insight that exists nowhere else in literature. But famous crimes always involve at least one person—criminal or victim—who is very much like us, a person living an ordinary, successful life who for some reason goes awry and becomes mired in a living hell. This is like fiction, only more powerful.
What would you hope readers respond to in their experience with Popular Crime?
What I would hope is that people will respond to the book by continuing to chew on the questions it raises. If an argument carries forward from the book, I’m happy.