Popular Crime by Bill James

Bill James' book Popular Crime has that breezy style that never fails to charm me. Funny, but knows when to turn off the sarcasm and get serious (something I struggle with), I cannot fault him his voice in this book, and I have an admittedly unabashed (and unapologetic!) fascination with crime. This writer even got a spot on Colbert, which is why I bought it.

But. It's not a book. There's no central theme, no overreaching arc that I could point to and say, this is what Bill James' thinks of crime. I know what he thinks of specific crimes, but I don't have much of handle on what he thinks our relationship to crime should be. Seriously, that it was a book at its most sneaky is trying to do. Woo you over to the dark side. This can't woo us because it's too far-reaching and not specific enough.

It would have worked as series of magazine articles. Maybe. It's largely a catalogue of gruesome crimes, with some not-so-veiled criticisms of the legal system, criticisms of the police, a panache of historical commentary, and his opinions on various crimes (did Lizzie Borden do it sort of thing). That's it. There's the throwing out of possible themes but none of them gel into what I would call a central theme that runs through all these anecdotes. And I kept looking for it, something that binds all this together in one package and, well, it's not there. It seems to me that something could be made about popular crime and the media, how it changed over history. People's reading habits. Did technology fuel the interest in violent crime. If yes, how? If no, why not? He tries to get there but he doesn't ever succeed because I think there's too much of him in the books for that to work. Plus, that would have taken some deep wading into sociological issues that I don't think he's interested in exploring. He could have written a book about police departments and the historical evolution of crime fighting. Mistakes that are no longer made. Mistakes that are continuing to be made. And, again, there's hints of this but no real cigar we can smoke. I can think of several directions this book could have gone in, and the principle problem is that it touched on many but refused to dedicate itself to one or even two themes.

As I end up saying nearly every time I write one of these reviews: where is his editor? Once again, we have a very decent writer who doesn't have a lighthouse operator showing him his way. That is what a good editor does. She/he is the beam of light that says, "This is your safe harbor. That idea, that construct, that context is going to smash your writerly efforts on some pretty nasty rocks. Come this way."


Beat Until Stiff (available in trade paperback and ebook formats)

Roux Morgue (available in hard cover, trade paperback, and ebook formats)

Pen and Prejudice (coming soon)

Poisoned Pen Press

Mystery Writers of America

Sisters in Crime Northern California Chapter

Independent American Booksellers Association