“Popular Crime” by Bill James

It all started in the two weeks of May-June when my sister and I would spend the nights in our hotel watching documentaries and bits and pieces on crimes and murders, while our mom was sleeping, tired from having woken up at 4:00 am due to jet lag. We decided we would not devote the little time we stayed awake after a long day to the ‘serious’ global issues or the less controversial and gloomy topics of entertainment news or simply our usual guilty pleasures of TV dramas and sitcoms. Instead, we would watch the stories of serial killers and their victims and cringe at the fact this world was so full of crazy murderers (with too many of them still at large or never caught, that I do wonder how we ever managed to go back to sleep) while being, I think, secretly excited. That is why when we saw this book lying on the display at Barns and Nobles, far from being daunted by its thickness, my sister immediately picked it up and I totally supported her choice.

There’s a passage in the book where the author tries to explain why people develop such an interest in popular crime stories, an explanation I really think we should all try to come up with. Think about it, there is nothing humane or dignified about making and watching all these documentaries and TV shows on how innocent people are being murdered, often in unimaginably horrifying and cruel ways. I was especially a bit scared I might lack a certain quality (call it ‘humanity’ or ‘compassion’), especially since I love criminal/forensic shows (CSI, The Mentalist, Cold Case, Law and Order SVU, and when I have no other option, Criminal Minds and Without a Trace). Anyways, the answer he provided was that deep inside, it’s not the gruesome details of the crimes we are drawn to, but rather wanting to know whether or not the culprit would be caught and thus acting on our inner sense of justice of seeing the ‘monster’ paying for his/her crimes. True, it was a beautiful theory, but one I was not entirely convinced of, because I saw myself really devouring these crimes one by one, without the slightest feeling of frustration or guilt even when it was clear that the murderer had never been caught and the whole case remained a mystery. As I was beginning to wonder if I should seek some serious help, I decided to hold on, and after 500 pages or so of crimes, assaults, unsolved murders, serial killers, rapes, innocent victims, mysteries, and so forth, I realized I was still ‘human’ after all. I was getting more and more frustrated that so many murderers were uncaught for so many vicious crimes, and the thought of these men and women who were spending or had spent most of their lives satisfied they would never get caught for the crimes they committed and the lives they destroyed was quite appalling.

So, personal fear aside, the book is highly ‘entertaining’ if I may use this word for such a gloomy subject, or ‘informative’ if this choice of words is more politically correct. If you can be patient and look over the numerous failures of the police and judicial force over centuries (really, it is amazing how these two still stand, despite so much incompetence) and the author’s frequent criticism at all these ‘liberal’ policies that have practically driven the police, the courts and journalism/the media far away from progress, then I have no doubt you will thoroughly enjoy the book. Moreover, I have the deepest respect for such an extended research (the book was written and completed during and after a long period of 10 years), and was utterly amazed at the number and amount of books and information on popular crimes out there. Sure, it was ‘his job’ some may say, but we all have jobs to do and you know that not everybody is doing their job right. So yes, I think the author deserves kudos for having gone through numerous documents on this issue and allowing us to get the gist of many of them without actually having to go through them one by one ourselves.

The other remarkable aspect of the book however, resides elsewhere. Sure, the listing of some of the major crime stories in a chronological order and the educated guesses the author offers on some unsolved cases are captivating, but what the author truly provides is an insight to the history, development and progress of the American culture in parallel to popular crimes. Along with the Radical movements in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Civil Right movements, the expansion of forms of media,  the changes experienced by journalism, and the reforms (good and bad) of the police, prisons and the courts, Bill James tells us that popular crimes, like any other social phenomenon, are not separate from our culture, and are reflections/mirrors of our society.

Although his proposal of a new prison system (many small prisons across the country, and when I mean ‘small’, I mean small as in ’25 inmates per prison’) is, I think, highly unrealistic (ideal, yes, and with a few good points, but unfortunately highly unrealistic), his concern for significant changes in the system that controls and rules over this matter is sincere.

I personally was amazed at the things I was unaware of the American cultural history, which in retrospect, shouldn’t be a surprise, since I have never had the chance to be educated on such matter. I guess I assumed I knew pretty much what there was to know, with, you know, the 70s and well, current issues. My bad. So yes, this is a book mainly on the details of popular crimes, but on the other side of the menu, you have many interesting facts about the United States, its culture and its history. I had no idea for instance, how significant the Radicals were around the end of the First World War (although I did have a glimpse in “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane), or how Chicago was a notorious city in terms of crime and corruption (which I guess explains why “The Good Wife” is set in the Windy City and corruption has become a big issue in the previous season and why politics remain a central issue of the series as a whole), or that the term ‘serial murderer’ was not coined until the 1980s.

To end this review on a less bleak note considering the subject dealt with –

There was mention of one serial killer in the book who, afraid of bringing his C+ report card to his parents, instead decided to break into an old woman’s house and kill her, hence marking the beginning of his serial killings. I don’t mean to be insensitive or politically incorrect, or stain the memory of all his innocent victims, but as the author included in his description of the murderer in question that he was ‘half-black, half-Asian’, my first thought was ‘Well, obviously, only someone with at least one Asian parent would be so afraid of his bad grades that he went and killed someone instead!’. And once again, it is NOT my intention to offend anyone with this rather flimsy ending.


3 thoughts on ““Popular Crime” by Bill James

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