If you read as much true crime as I have, you may also feel like it’s a dirty little secret. I picked up Popular Crime and blasted through it, almost without intending to, when I was supposed to be reading something else.
The subtitle to Bill James’s book Popular Crime is “Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.” It could justifiably be called any of a number of other things, such as “A Second Look at Many Famous Crimes,” or “How Media Attention Educates the Public about Jurisprudence,” or “A Book That Should Have Been a Blog.” (Bill James has a website, which at first glance I thought was entirely about baseball. It includes some crime pieces, but requires a paid subscription).
This book is casual (written over 25 years with no notes or bibliography), irreverent, sometimes maddening, but almost unfailingly fascinating. It’s mostly a chronologically ordered catalog of famous crimes, interspersed with reasons these cases were important. James proposes that popular crime brings important legal and procedural issues to the public’s attention. He also has theses about why we have as much crime as we do and how to tackle it. These are important points, but the manner of delivery and the author’s lack of relevant expertise unfortunately make them unlikely to be taken seriously until they are brought up by someone else in another forum.
The best reason to read the book is to hear James out on his alternative theories and opinions on crimes you may already have studied. (It can be frustrating to read about the less familiar crimes, similar to the experience of reading a review of a movie you haven’t seen). He got my attention with his account of the JFK assassination, changed my mind about the JonBenet Ramsey case, and had me pacing the floor in an imaginary argument about the Lizzie Borden case.
The other thing he did was to compare Ted Bundy to Barack Obama.
Popular Crime is not a perfect book, but it’s tremendously engaging. This book changed my perspective on a number of things and will affect my future reading on the subject. True crime fans should make a point of checking it out.