Murder Abstract

Sat May 21, 2011

I remember fondly reading Bill James’s Baseball Abstracts when I was young. I wrote a computer program to tabulate his formulas and tried to apply his sabermetric analyses to my Little League games. Having heard in various places that he was at work about a book on crime in the United States, I naturally assumed that the product would be an exercise in unconventional criminological wisdom. I have an interest, after all, in the rhetoric of true crime narratives; and James has, by his own count, read over a thousand of them over the years. The result, Popular Crime, was disappointing on many levels, however.

In the acknowledgments section at the end of the book, James mentions being difficult to edit. I saw little evidence that this book was edited. I found little in the way of typos (Megadeath for Megadeth is the only one I remember), and I wasn’t tracking historical information very closely (no footnotes, marginal in-text citations). But the style of the book is rambling and inchoate. You can ramble while writing journalistic, punchy prose. James doesn’t seem to realize this, and he relentlessly criticizes the books that he has read, especially if they were written by academics, for including too much detail or various other stylistic faults.

The book reads very much like a chronologically organized series of blog entries. Chronologically by date of the subject of the murders, I mean. It’s obvious that a few of the cases drew much more of James’s attention than others, and I found his take on the JonBenet Ramsey situation to be as cogent as anything I remember reading about it (which to be fair, isn’t much. I only recall something by Joyce Carol Oates.)

But James does have some sociological observations. He thinks that the Warren court is responsible for the resurgence of the death penalty and the size and conditions of prisons currently. James argues that the death penalty would have withered away naturally were it not for judicial action to render it unconstitutional, and he also argues that overcrowded prisons are the result of judges allowing too-lenient paroles in the 60s, which has led to a backlash of tighter sentencing, plus the law libraries that prisoners have access to take away from the space necessary to house them. His proposal to reform all of this is to have many small prisons built. Everywhere. Gangs and related prison violence would be less likely to be a serious problem with a small inmate population, and, as for NIMBY, well people will just have to get over that the way that scouts had to get over their prejudice against short pot-bellied guys who hit .385 in college or managers had to get over the idea that stolen bases win ball games.