Quantcast

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Book Review: Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James

In my interview for this job, my now-boss brought up the subject of the genre of True Crime, and how it probably needs to be rebranded. I agree wholeheartedly. But I think that it needs to be broken in half, and that's what needs to be rebranded. In the year and a half since then, I've thought of this a lot. My Mother-in-law reads a lot of true crime, and I read a modest amount, but until this book, the Venn Diagram of our true crime reads had no overlap at all. She tends to read the ripped-from-the-headlines, commercial, tabloid-esque variety (not that there's anything wrong with that!) such as Jaycee Dugard's tell-all and books co-written by People Magazine journalists (really, no judgment. I subscribe to People and I love it.) Whereas the books I read that fall within the True Crime genre are more like The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, about a nineteenth-century French serial killer. My boss was discussing this because the more literary side of this genre has been on a big upswing, but the books can be hard to sell as the phrase "true crime" has a salacious ring to it that doesn't resonate with literary readers, even if they're missing out.

A few months ago I was at one of my accounts and I mentioned my MIL's birthday was coming up and she liked True Crime, and the buyer immediately went to this title. I knew who Bill James was instantly, having eaten up Moneyball when it was first published. I jumped on it and bought it for her right away. Then I thought, this looks so fascinating, I ought to get one for myself. And when I went to add it to Goodreads, I saw that I already had added it. Hm. (This is why I am religious about my Goodreads or I would own dozens of duplicate copies of books.) And I thought, this could be interesting if my MIL and I both like it. We could actually finally have a book in the middle of the Venn Diagram! So I sat down and read it.

Chunkster as it is, I read it very quickly. James is making the argument that while the intelligentsia looks down on true crime aficionados as exploitative and low-brow, this fascination has been going on for centuries, has been beloved by plenty of the high-brow, and actually has a purpose or two. It helps us to NOT become inured to the horrific goings-on around us, it can actually be a welcome distraction from awful news that is more difficult to mentally and emotionally deal with, and heck, publicizing serial crimes can often lead to arrests and heightened public awareness. He goes back and looks at dozens of "crimes of the century" over the last 200 years in America. He looks at patterns in the coverage of crimes. He looks at how in a few cases like JonBenet Ramsey, the public scrutiny of course screwed up the way the case was handled by the police, irreparably. He does give his opinion of who committed certain "unsolved" murders. He shows how American culture has been influenced by crime, and how crime has influence American culture. He gives his opinions on how and what could help reduce crime and in what ways we're actually exacerbating it. If you are a pop culture junky like I am, and have even a passing interest in the O.J. Simpson case or any of the classics like The Boston Strangler or Ted Bundy, this is a must-read. It is a few years old (2011) so don't expect the high-profile crimes of the last few years to be included. Personally, I was annoyed by a sprinkling of typos throughout, but it happens. And it didn't take away from the masterful synthesis of two centuries of "popular crime" in America.

I bought this book at Solid State, an independent bookstore in Washington DC. 

No comments: