Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence
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Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence

3.68 of 5 stars 3.68  ·  rating details  ·  985 ratings  ·  174 reviews
The man who revolutionized the way we think about baseball now examines our cultural obsession with murder—delivering a unique, engrossing, brilliant history of tabloid crime in America.

Celebrated writer and contrarian Bill James has voraciously read true crime throughout his life and has been interested in writing a book on the topic for decades. Now, with Pop...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published May 3rd 2011 by Scribner (first published April 28th 2011)
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Nate Johnson
I am seldom compelled to write reviews on this site - but I just finished a book that cannot think to describe other than something that includes the phrase "written by an asshole." James:

1. goes on distracting asides attacking forms of literature he doesn't like
2. evaluates books as good or bad while giving no support for his arguments
3. speculates endlessly on the "real events" of crimes while lambasting others for doing so
4. offers solid reader advice like, "I won't mention it here; you knw w...more
Curtis Edmonds
Bill James has spent most of the last few years in Boston. I do not know if he spent any or all of that time sitting on a barstool in some Beacon Street bar, dispensing wisdom and nonsense co-mingled in the way of the barroom know-it-all. But if he did, and if you were there to hear it, and if you wrote all of it down, you would come up with a book like "Popular Crime." It is breezy, self-assured, all over the map in every direction, and told with the absolute certainty of the taproom blowhard....more
I found this difficult to rate. The good: fascinating subject (if you're into it, which presumably if you buy a book called "Popular Crime" you are), very readable summaries and writing style, and it's great for someone like me, who will never ever read a book all about Jon Benet Ramsey, but will happily read a ten-page lit review of those books about Jon Benet Ramsey.

The bad: sometimes his style gets a bit too colloquial and entirely disorganized (dozens of pages will go by rattling off crime a...more
This is a strange book. I mean that not in a bad way, but in a very literal sense--different from anything else I've read. Granted, I've not read James' Historical Abstracts, which probably would have given me a better idea what this is like.

Anyway, I was a little bit disappointed, because based on my love for baseball statistics and more than passing interest in crime and the criminal justice system, I thought I would love this book, and instead merely liked it. James is definitely not a great...more
Richard Finney
I was looking forward to reading this book because I grew up reading his books on baseball statistics, which completely changed the way most serious fans look at the sport.

This book on crime was a solid triple... most of the times totally illuminating, passionately written and completely absorbing if you are interested in reading about some of the most famous violent crimes in the last hundred years. The chapters on Lizzie Borden and the Boston Strangler are real stand outs. I especially love t...more
Oct 22, 2011 KC rated it 1 of 5 stars
Shelves: dnf
I got about 150 pages in, skimmed the rest, and gave up. At first, I found the short anecdotes and sidebars to be interesting, even if the writing read more like punditry than exposition. After a while, though, I found myself annoyed by the author's tendency to draw sweeping conclusions without any effort to corroborate his personal opinions. His disdain for the law and lawyers prevents him from engaging in a meaningful and comprehensive critique of either (and we need those critiques, believe m...more
This is a fascinating book, although it's a bit odd in places. James' writing style is all over the place, he's opinionated but not tactful, he pulls numbers and facts out of unnamed places (maybe his arse, maybe somewhere legit... there are no footnotes or references in my Kindle version). I really enjoyed reading it :) It's like having a meandering conversation with someone who alternately makes you yell "Whaaat?! No way, dude!" and "Yeah! Well said, spot on!".

I liked his categorisation of cr...more
Mary Ronan Drew
Bill James is an unusual writer. He is best known for sabermetrics, a new way of collecting baseball statistics that better reflects the performance of players. But during all the years that he has been writing his baseball books and advising teams he has also been reading books about crime. Not mysteries or thrillers, true crime. He estimates he has read about 1,000 of these books, about murders ranging from Lizzie Borden to Jon Benet Ramsey.

James approaches any subject in an almost entirely un...more
One of the blurbs on the cover describes the book as “sabermetrics meets the Coen Brothers.” That is a bizarre combination, but given that Bill James is the author a reader could be forgiven for believing the hype.

If only.

In truth, I don’t understand what the point of this book was. The subtitle is “Reflections on the Celebration of Violence,” which again—like sabermetrics meeting the Coen Brothers—seems like an interesting topic. But the bulk of the book is devoted only to given brief summari...more
Mark Desrosiers
I think Bill James is misusing his obvious and potent powers here. As a baseball expert, his outside-the-box, everydude, quantitative methods of looking at baseball have transformed the game, instilled strategic wisdom in some managers, emboldened the mathemagicians, caused the Red Sox to win two world series, etc. And he writes that way too -- lots of "look, I don't know much about this, but..." asides, as if he's sitting on the next barstool, bouncing another brilliant earth-shaking insight of...more
David Gross
Bill James has read a whole lot of true-crime books. Popular Crime summarizes the crimes in these books (almost all of them murders), in roughly chronological order, and comments a little bit also about how certain varieties of crime caught the public eye at different periods.

He makes nods at making the book more than just a catalog of the lurid, but his analyses of how the criminal justice system has changed, of cultural attitudes toward crime and criminals, and of the popularity of crime stori...more
It probably isn't fair for me to rate this book as I didn't read the entire thing but rather most of it; that is, I skipped straight to all the essays about the murders I was interested in to get this author's take.
While Bill James is not the best writer out there, he is humorous and thorough and makes clear what are often complicated cases. I thoroughly enjoyed his take on the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder. His reviews of other books on the cases he presents are often funny and provide a good perspe...more
Gabe Perna
If the name of the guy who wrote this piece of crap was James Bill, not only would it have not gotten published, but the publisher would have laughed him out of the building. At no point in this book did the author write anything but a series of rambling, opinionated jags on popular crime stories. Most of what he had an opinion on was pure speculation. He then had the gall to criticize other people's work. People who, unlike James, actually did real research and work. I hate to say "stick to wha...more
This book is home to some of the most unprofessional writing I've read in a book this mainstream; he even regales us with GR-esque reviews (including letter grades) of tawdry paperback crime books. James' goal is to elevate the study of the True Crime genre to some sort of art, but his attempt basically fails. The book, in the end, is just a compendium of crime stories and the stories are what holds the reader's interest, not James' needless and overly-argumentative insights and assertions. As a...more
I did not finish this book.
Too much unnecessary detail - six degrees of separation facts were interesting in the first few examples, but later became irritating like namedropping.
This led me to stop reading the book from beginning to end and start skipping around to what I thought would be interesting cases.
Some crimes were covered exhaustively and others barely a paragraph. For example Nancy Spungen (from Sid and Nancy) was so short that as I continued on to the next paragraph, I was left wonde...more
Quirky, intelligent, highly opinionated discussion of how crime coverage has affected (and still affects) Americans throughout our history. James sometimes becomes indignant, as when he talks about the police's dismissal of the man who should have been the prime suspect in the Hall-Mills murder case: "Is there some sort of law that mousy, ineffectual people don't commit murder in New Jersey?"

Why do some crimes capture the media's attention, and others make barely a ripple? That, ostensibly, is the central theme to the book. He does address this issue from time to time, but he also reviews other true crime books, lays out what he thinks happened in assorted famous murders, and provides some pretty sound suggestions for prison reform.

An interesting, if choppy read.
I adored this book. Bill James has the kind of dry, witty writing style that makes everything interesting. His take on how popular crime has affected our lives and history is amazing and I cannot say enough good things about it. If you've ever felt guilty reading true crime books, this will make you feel so much better as it teaches you things you never thought you'd learn.
A book-length bull session with Bill James, spouting off everything he's taken from the 1,000+ true crime books he's read over the years. Now, I'd happily read Bill James on any subject he cares to write about, but unless you feel the same way, this book is likely to seem superficial.
Christopher Day
Exactly the type of book about true crime that you would expect a baseball statistician to write. Basically a survey of "popular" crime (the murders and kidnappings that captured the imagination of the public and the press) in the US over the past 150 years or so, it also tries to be many other things. It is a survey of the books that have been written about those crimes. It is a collection of rants by the author on the failures of the courts, lawyers, police, media, and public, and his theories...more
I read this book with fascination, horror, and wonder at how James could take a sensational topic and bring meaning to it in his own inimitable way. As an analyst of baseball, James is the statistician without peer. As a connoisseur of tabloid news, he brings a deeper understanding of what binds these tales together, these murders and kidnappings, and why they appeal to us year after year, even as each one is advertised as the "murder of the century." Still, it is one thing to delve into a singl...more
Terry Heller
I've never read a true crime book, but I enjoyed Bill James' baseball books so much that I decided to take a chance on this one. James' skills as an analyst and contrarian are impressive: the fact that James is not a lawyer, and has no background in law enforcement, means that he views these famous crimes from American history with clear eyes, avoiding cliches. On the other hand, he prefaces a lot of bizarre points with "I'm not a lawyer, but . . ." or "I don't understand the laws of criminal pr...more
Jim Corrigan
I really enjoyed this book. I never read books about crime, but Bill James does -- a lot of them. I agree with the reviewer who said the Lizzie Borden and Boston Strangler chapters were standouts.

James never says it, but I get the feeling he's trying to do to the Justice system what he did to baseball -- generate new ideas, force new ways of thinking. He begins by discussing motive, means, and opportunity. He uses the example of a watermelon; he had motive, means, and opportunity to buy one, but...more
Two five-star books in a row for me and they couldn't be more dissimilar from each other - except that they are both entertaining and amusing and well-written.
This is a long, detailed book about "Popular Crime." James discusses dozens of famous crimes - mostly U.S. - and gives his take on what may have actually happened based on his research, current investigative science, and the opinions of other experts. He's interested in the "still mysterious" (Lizzie Borden) more than the "solved" (Ted Bun...more
I really enjoyed this book. That sounds almost terrible to say, given the subject, but I've read a bit of true crime and I've never read anything quite like this book. James works his way forward through crime stories over the last 150 years or so, from Lizzie Borden through the Lindbergh baby right up to OJ and JonBenet. He touches on how society is shaped by crime stories and vice versa (I actually expected more analysis, given his codes for categorizing different types of stories, but he didn...more
Aspen Junge
It's a very interesting book by a very talented writer. It's part catalog of murder, part bibliography, part meditations on society, part critique of the US criminal justice system. What's most delightful is that the author does not hesitate to insert himself, his thoughts, and his opinions into his narratives. He does assume the reader will be familiar with True Crime books and journalism; I'm not particularly, but still enjoyed the book immensely.

James suggests that the tawdry, voyeuristic, g...more
This book had some great commentaries and some real funny moments. The writer is amazing. He questions why some literary critics look down on crime novels and that type of genre. Because (in his opinion) crimes, the handling of crimes, the after effects and how the media deals with crimes are very very important to us as a people, a culture and our judicial system. Why do we try to make the legal process as perfect as possible? Many times we have NO IDEA what really happened, and so we are tryin...more
This book is, to use a "popular" phrase, a hot mess. I'd never read anything by Bill James before, but apparently he's a quite well-known writer on baseball. In Popular Crime, his stated purpose is to trace the history of true crime books, TV, and media coverage and show whether or not they are "bad" for society. Unfortunately, he doesn't come anywhere near meeting his goals.

While James lays out the crimes in chronological order, he doesn't trace the history of media coverage of famous murders l...more
I'm always a bit skeptical of writers who wag their fingers at true crime readers for being interested in such a lurid subject while failing to acknowledge the money they themselves are making off others' tragedy and grief. (I'm looking at you Ann Rule and Patricia Cornwell.) Bill James’s book has the same sort of vibe. He’s a “jack of all crime cases master of none,” and bounces from case to case presenting his theory on what actually happened. As for his take on the JonBenet Ramsey case, it ce...more
Popular Crime is a collection of notes and observations that follows the media and public obsession with some crimes, largely in the United States, and largely chronologically. Those readers expecting Historical Baseball Abstract insights into crime, which would upend how we look at this discipline, are going to be disappointed. The book does not claim to do this, nor does it attempt to do so. Those readers looking for quick, intellectual discussions about famous crimes will find Bill James to b...more
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George William “Bill” James (born October 5, 1949, in Holton, Kansas) is a baseball writer, historian, and statistician whose work has been widely influential. Since 1977, James has written more than two dozen books devoted to baseball history and statistics. His approach, which he termed sabermetrics in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), scientifically analyzes and st...more
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