Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Popular Crime by Bill James

The first long book I read of 2013 was Bill James' book on popular crime called Popular Crime. I have always been a fan of Bill James' writing. For all of the talk of Bill James being the Father of Sabrmetrics and all, it is often overlooked that part of the reason he was able to open people's minds to analysis was because he could write well and in an entertaining fashion.

Back in the 1980's James launched his Abstracts which were then somewhat copied by the Elias Sports Bureau and their Analyst books. I always felt there were two differences between the two books. One, Elias just threw out numbers without really trying to determine what analysis was valid and what wasn't. That's why you had so much negativity early on towards the use of statistical analysis. Elias would give you who had the best batting average on Thursday nights with a runner on second and one out and a left-handed pitcher on the mound. James would actually try and figure out what numbers actually told you and how to use them. And of course the other difference was the writing. One of my favorite books of James' is the book This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones which was some of the best writing from his Abstract books. No numbers.

So I was looking forward to Popular Crime. I'm not a fan of popular crime in the least. I don't really understand the appeal. Art crime, love it. Murders and kidnappings I can do without. I was hoping that James might at least spark some appreciation, if not interest, in the subject matter.

Just wasn't the case. James covers a zillion instances of popular crime from the late 19th century until the present and covers them in odd ways. In some cases, he takes a straight reporting approach. In others, he puts forth some ideas as to who the perpetrator of the crime may have been. James is an avid reader of the popular crime oeuvre and for some cases, he provides book reviews of which books did the best of covering a particular crime. Every now and then he tries to take a quantitative approach, building some sort of scheme to classify or quantify crime, making it seem like he feels the need to live up to his Father of Sabrmetrics billing. It doesn't work.

Really nothing about the book worked for me. James seems to think his readers come to the book with a level of knowledge and interest similar to his own. He references "Dreyfus stories" a number of times without ever explaining what those are or why they are important. He talks about the popularity of recent cases as if the reader is tuned in to every cable news network and newspaper story that covers any sort of crime and so should be thoroughly knowledgeable of the aspects of the case. Perhaps if you shared James' passion for the subject, the book would be more enjoyable than I found it. If you don't have already have an interest in popular crime, I don't think this book is going to change that for you.

The highlight of the book came in the index. After yet another mention of Dreyfus stories, I turned to the index to see on what page the term was defined (it never was defined). I turn to the D's and lo and behold, there I am in the index! If I had known I was in a Bill James book, I would have expected it to be a baseball book but there I was in his popular crime book. Oh, wait. That's right. The serial killer. I share a name with a serial killer (which I also believe killed off any hope of me ever finding internet romance. Whenever someone Googles you and finds a serial killer, they usually don't call to see what time you're picking them up). James talks about him in the book and not me. Alas.


Carl Crawford Cards said...

Guessing "Dreyfus stories" refers to the Dreyfus case (http://www.law.uga.edu/dwilkes_more/his6_dreyfus.html), essentially a paradigmatic example in which membership in a particular ethnic group is used to demonstrate proof of one's committing a crime, particularly if that crime involves treasonous disloyalty to the state.

Anonymous said...

You are more charming than the serial killer and way cuter!