June 5, 2011

Popular Crimes

Bryan Burroughs offers up a review of Bill James' Popular Crime: Reflections On the Celebration of Violence (Simon and Schuster) in the June 5th New York Times Book Review. Mr. James is better known as a sports writer (Solid Fool's Gold: Detours On the Way To Conventional Wisdom (Acta Publications, 2011)), but has always like true crime books, and notes that he doesn't think there are any books about them. So he has written one. In particular he is interested in why we are interested in true crime, and in reading and writing about it.

Crime stories are very often the basis on which new laws are proposed and old ones modified. We have Megan's Law and Sarah's Law and Jeremy's Law and Amber Alerts. This has been true for many years. In the 18th century several new laws sprung from the story of Elizabeth Canning. In the 1930s we had the Lindbergh Laws and the Little Lindbergh Laws. A great deal of our law and of our criminal procedure has always been shaped and re-shaped by these very famous crimes that the best people refuse to discuss.

Of course there is a national discussion about those types of issues—among the lawyers. When the rest of us try to comment, we are reminded firmly that we are not lawyers and therefore don't know what we're talking about. No one writes about these issues. Name a book by a non-lawyer, published in the last ten years for the general public, which attempts to discuss these issues in a serious way. On truTV, whenever a guest tries to comment on some irrational wrinkle of judicial procedure, some self-important lawyer immediately steps forward to "explain" why the system has to work this way, why the system of justice would collapse if a juror were allowed to read a news report about the case or a cop was allowed to mention his prior run-ins with the defendant.

It is not my intention to bash lawyers. It is my belief that the lay public—non-lawyers—should participate actively in the discussion of crime and justice. It is my notion that popular crime stories could be and should be a passageway that the lay public uses to enter into that discussion.

I said that no one writes about these issues, which is not literally true. I am sure that in some corner of the academic world there hides an intellectual who knows vastly more about these issues than I do and has written 208 published articles about them, which none of us have ever heard of, probably because he writes like a troll, or, not to be sexist, she writes like a troll or trollette. I am not here to bash intellectuals, either; I'm just a sarcastic bastard by nature.

This book is about three things. First, it is about famous crimes, and in particular about famous crimes which have happened in the United States since about 1880. Second, it is about crime, in a general way, about the kinds of issues I have tried to introduce here.

And third, it is about crime books. I am not a lawyer or an academic, nor even a cop or a court groupie. My understanding of these issues is based on what I have read, which includes a thousand or more crime books. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no book about crime books.

Hmmm. Mr. James is probably correct that crimes spur legislation. But how does one write like a troll? Read the rest of Chapter 1 here, courtesy of the publisher.

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