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

3.71 of 5 stars 3.71  ·  rating details  ·  1,547 ratings  ·  215 reviews
The man who revolutionized the way we think about baseball 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. With Popular Crime, James ta
Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 8th 2012 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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

Very interesting....made me Google a lot. But the repeated uses of Wikipedia as a source caused me anxiety.
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
I love the Baseball Abstract, which is a terrific mixture of solid statistical analysis and totally random opinion. But when James gets away from baseball, there are no stats to help him. He's very readable--especially when he takes the time to break down a crime and show why he holds a particular opinion about it (ex: Lizzie Borden, JonBenet Ramsey), or when he takes the time to carefully argue a position (ex: his argument for more, smaller prisons). Whether or not you agree with him, he can be ...more
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.
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
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
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
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
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
I loved this book. I didn't know Bill James as a baseball personality (I'm not much of a sports person), so I didn't have any expectations going in, other than being excited to read the book because I love true crime. Well, I thought I loved true crime-- Until I saw how many true crime books Bill James has read. It's unbelievable just how widely he's read about all these crimes.

The book is a history of popular crime, jumping from crime to crime throughout each chapter. James seems to have done w
I really enjoyed this book! The structure is infinitely readable, basically 2-3 true crime anecdotes per chapter and then an explanation of how these crimes/investigations have influenced our society's opinions and reactions to similar crimes. It's amazing how many "crimes of the century" we've had in the west that have long since passed out of popular memory. It's also fascinating to learn how our law enforcement agencies and legal systems have stumbled & bumbled into their current, imperfe ...more
Bob Bennhoff
This is one of the most fascinating books I've ever picked up. The author, Bill James, is primarily known for reinventing the way people look at baseball. Heard of Moneyball? All those statistical principals which were somehow made into a Brad Pitt movie were innovated by one Bill James. James other passion is understanding popular crime and how it interplays with society. This is a chronological series of essays that examine at various lengths James various thoughts on crime. Those might focus ...more
R.G. Belsky
This is probably the most disappointing book for me in a long time. I'm a huge Bill James fan and I devour all his baseball books. But I also love his take on non-baseball topis in those books. So I was eagerly looking forward to his views on popular crime cases. Ugh. He brings little to the discussion of our biggest crimes in this book. Frankly, much of it is superficial and naive at points.

The part that annoyed me the most was the way he completely wrote off the importance of the JFK assassin
I read this in a day...doing some judicious skimming throughout the second half. As someone who never reads true crime I enjoyed the experience. James provides nice summaries of the major American crimes since the 18th century that have captivated the public. That being said this is a tough read. He's like a pretentious old blow-hard at a dive bar...he's got some interesting tales (none of which is based on anything other than true crime paperbacks he's read) and he's got some long-winded rants. ...more
"Criminal justice calls for the careful balancing of competing interests within a complex problem." It take Bill James 421 pages to get to the point. Fortunately, the journey there isn't half bad.

Actually, that depends. James' style is that of the raconteur, the seen-it-all-and-know-a-bit-more-besides barstool pundit. His subject is popular crime stories, his material three hundred years of accounts of the notorious and the less-so crimes of passion, anger, depravity and, quite occasionally, gr
I probably never give this book the time of day if it were not written by Bill James (and the book wouldn't exist without him ... as you might realize), the arguable godfather of modern baseball analytics and the proprietor of the before-their-time Baseball Abstracts.

1. James, I think, is very intelligent but Popular Crime comes off as a candidate for self-publishing. As noted, James has created a career out of writing about baseball statistics. However, baseball is as much a passion turned car
Jim Cupples
Really enjoyed this book. Bill James is a contrarian thinker who looks at "common" things in different ways. He did it with baseball (what he's most known for) and now he's done it with crime, with a special focus on serial killers. The book can be a little bit scary, and it is a little long, but the best part is that you can pick it up and put it down very easily. You can skip forward chapters and go backwards, and there's only a few times where you might miss something from doing this. He's al ...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.
This is a really engrossing book.
Something Terrible Has Happened is the best title ever for a crime book; that actually is what I was going to call this book until I realized the title had already been used. Those exact words appear in countless crime books; it is what one says to prepare a loved one for a life-altering revelation. Those words turn the 'crime story' inside out by exposing the human beings standing on what otherwise appears to be a vast and grisly stage. Something has happened t
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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
More about Bill James...
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