Advanced Stats for Criminals: Bill James’ Popular Crime

Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence

Let’s start with the obvious in bold print typeface: if you’ve ever read any of his Baseball Abstracts, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Bill James’ Popular Crime. And you’ll probably know if you’ll like it or not, too.

Some time around the Peloponnesian War, James’ abstracts helped redefine the world of baseball statistics and brought in a new way of watching the sport: he helped explain why some stats are useful, others aren’t and ushered in the era of Baseball Prospectus, Nate Silver and Moneyball. Some people loved him, but others hated him and still do. Most famously, Joe Morgan has gone on record for disliking advanced stats and any look at baseball that seems to go beyond “He hits a lot of dingers, so must be good.” But other people have, too. The normally reasonable Thomas Boswell slammed him once.

Anyway, baseball has survived whatever wraith James has wrought. Generally, fans are a lot smarter now and don’t rely on cliché spitting columnists and empty quotes from athletes. It’s a better world where we can least argue value over production. With his latest book, he’s moved to another love of his: crimes. Which, when you think about it, has some of the same problems with its reportage: a lot of pieces that focus on events and ignore trends; a lot of grandstanding but precious little analysis. So it makes sense that James would turn to the darker side of society.

Well, reading about this side of society anyway. All the true crime books James read over the years are what inspired Popular Crime and trust me, there’s one dropped every couple of pages. They range from classics like In Cold Blood or The Onion Field to stuff well off the beaten path: Adela Rogers St. Johns’ Final Verdict. Just his bibliography alone is an impressive reading list.

But what’s it about? Well, James mostly focuses on murders, trying to sort through what happened and putting a logical analysis to the events. It’s interesting stuff, especially if you’re learning about the crime through his book, but it occasionally gets repetitive. There’s only so many times he can explain why motive isn’t as strong evidence as the cops like to admit before one gets the idea.

Still, his analysis is the meat of his book. He breaks things down with a few things of his own invention: one is a scale from 1-100 on how persuasive evidence was or a shorthand way to classify types of crime, going deeper than murder, manslaughter, etc. I’m not sure I’d call any of these especially effective, but like his baseball abstracts, they’re a fresh way at looking at something that’s been around since, well, the Roman Empire he opens the book with.

The most interesting parts are when he applies his knowledge to the details of the justice system: James has opinions on the Warren Supreme Court which might surprise you and his takes on prison reform or why the death penalty is still around aren’t always something I agree with, but I respect how well he goes about his case. It’s nice to read arguments which don’t get bogged down in ideology (Penn Gillette’s rants about what the government ought to do comes to mind).

Rating: 7/10. Recommended for those who liked his abstracts, especially with an interest in crime. You might not always agree with him and might say he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, but that’s what they said he started writing about baseball, too. It’s too bad this won’t open debates like his abstracts did.




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