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Hit-miss approach to crime is taken by baseball's James
Book review: 'Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence,' by Bill James. Scribner, $30.
Sunday, May 01, 2011

At first glance, Bill James' ruminations on several centuries of murder in America have the feel of an important, almost sociological study of why heinous crimes have become a national obsession.

After all, in good times and bad, the public can't resist a juicy, salacious murder, aided and abetted by an obliging media, to take its mind off the daily grind.

Why, for instance, did so many viewers spend hours watching the so-called "slow-speed chase" of O. J. Simpson in which nothing happened?

Mr. James proposes to address that question and a pile of others using the skills he developed compiling his famous "Baseball Abstracts," a refreshing analysis of another obsession, sports statistics.

Stats, though, are hard data; crimes of passion often defy logical explanations. Mr. James is a self-professed crime-story junkie who can't wait to tell readers what arcane facts and personal opinions he's gathered from years of reading about lurid misdeeds.

Much of his book reworks famous cases -- Lizzie Borden, Thaw-White, Halls-Mills, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Black Dahlia, Sam Sheppard, the Boston Strangler and even the Nicole Simpson killing.

His conclusions, however, are those of a dilettante, particularly his accounts of certain U.S. Supreme Court decisions that he believes created more crime.

"Popular Crime" is entertaining, but it's not something to be taken seriously. Mr. James doesn't even take himself too seriously, except when he's blaming the nation's highest court for a growth in crime.

"The damned foolishness of the Warren Court unleashed upon us a torrent of criminal violence which pitched the nation backwards into atavistic attitudes about crime and punishment," cries Mr. James.

The "foolishness" was the "Miranda Warning," actually a series of rulings the court made in the mid-1960s, forcing police to "jump through hoops" when questioning suspects.

Mr. James cites the drawn-out "Onion Field" police-officer killing incident in California in 1963, topic of former Pittsburgh-area writer Joseph Wambaugh's first book, as a prime example of how guilty parties were granted too much leeway to defend themselves.

While praising the Warren court for its concern about "essentially good ideas" (constitutional rights), Mr. James believes its decisions went overboard by applying them to everyone, from Charles Manson on down.

How this altered attitude prompted criminals to commit more crimes, as Mr. James argues, remains a hard sell, a cause that he cannot effectively turn into a verifiable effect, like turning a stack of batting records into determining what makes an effective hitter.

"Popular Crime," then, is best viewed as an engagingly written history of well-publicized deadly crimes.

However, Mr. James' endorsement of another theory in the assassination of John F. Kennedy falls into the improbability range.

As serious scholarship goes, his book hits with all the authority of former Pirate infielder Mario Mendoza, renowned for his .200 batting average.

"POPULAR CRIME:

REFLECTIONS ON THE CELEBRATION OF VIOLENCE"

By Bill James.

Scribner ($30).

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com.

First published on May 1, 2011 at 12:00 am
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