music friday: janis joplin, “kozmic blues”
what i watched last week

popular crime

I am one of many who will read anything Bill James writes. Hell, I pay $3/month for his web site, the highlight of which is “Hey Bill,” where James answers questions from his readers. Not all of the questions are about baseball, which I like:

bill is funner a word? if saying 'playing checkers is funner than playing chess' is wrong than why is saying "susan is tanner than Catherine' acceptable? I had two friends tell me today that funner is wrong but 'funner' is in the new dictionary.
Asked by: Anonymous
Answered: June 5, 2011

Anything that people say and other people understand is a word.    There have been, in the past, people who wanted to decide what words others could and should use, and one of their diabolical tricks was to declare words like "funner" to be off-limits, and to pass judgment on those who used such words.    But no one, in truth, has any right to decree what words others should use, and gradually the world is learning to pay no attention to those who try to tell others how to talk.

James made his name as a baseball analyst, although it’s a sign of his excellence that many of us have found ways to apply his general methods to non-baseball life. (An entire book, How Bill James Changed Our View of the Game of Baseball, is filled with essays by a variety of authors that begin with baseball and end up at some other point in the writer’s life.)

James has written a book (Popular Crime) about crime, a subject that has interested him for his entire life. Of course I read it … if James decided to write a book about spinach, I’d read it, because I am interested in where James’ mind has taken him. (In college, if I found a professor I liked, I would take as many courses from them as I could … I wanted to know what else they had to offer, because what I’d already seen was insightful.) Is the book any good? Well, I don’t read a lot of true crime books, so I don’t know how it compares to those. It’s not as good as his best baseball books, but I’m not sure that’s the point. While a lot of research went into the book, much of the pleasure of reading it comes from watching James work his way through the various crimes.

He tells stories in a chronological fashion, but otherwise the book is rather haphazard. Once in awhile, he’ll take on a larger topic and expound for awhile. Some of these are quite Jamesian in a rather goofy way (figuring out a 1-100 scale to help juries discover guilt or innocence, or creating a kind of indexing system to identify types of crimes so that the murder of JonBenet Ramsay is an IQBX 9). Others are thought provoking, like his idea of changing our penal system so that all prisons are limited to a population of 24 convicts.

But the best stuff comes when James breaks down a crime. Even here, things feel tossed together. Some crimes get a couple of paragraphs; others get two chapters. It’s safe to say that the longer the passages, the more interesting they are. And so we learn that James thinks they got the wrong guy for the Boston Strangler, that Julius Rosenberg was probably involved in espionage but nothing happened to warrant execution, and that JFK was killed by an accidental stray bullet from the gun of a Secret Service agent. In each of these cases, he walks us through his logic (not that I’m convinced re: Kennedy).

There are also the odd asides that James has been including his books for as long as I’ve been reading him, which is close to 30 years. Here’s a favorite. In the midst of a long discussion of a case regarding a Rabbi who cheated on his wife (the wife is the murder victim in this one), we learn that many years later, when the case still hadn’t been solved but many of the people involved have moved on, the Rabbi had a new girlfriend. “His new girlfriend was Ms. Vicki—the same Miss Vicki who had married Tiny Tim on The Tonight Show in 1969. Those of you who are old enough will remember it.”

I don’t know if I’m exactly recommending this book. I enjoyed it. I think its obvious audience is made up of James Fans who don’t mind him talking about something besides baseball. I don’t know that I learned much about crime. But I learned something about Bill James, and that was good enough for me.