Friday, August 26, 2011

Popular Crime

Ben gave me Bill James Popular Crime, knowing I have been a fan of his baseball writing. Even though I have never had much interest in True Crime stories, I liked the book tolerably well. Perhaps most oddly, he provided the one nonstandard JFK shooting theory that has ever seemed plausible to me – perhaps plausible because it isn’t a conspiracy theory, but an accident theory (that one of the bullets was an accidental firing by a Secret Service agent in the car). Conspiracies don’t remain secret for long, but screwups happen all the time. I don’t say I have switched over to that theory, BTW, just that I find it plausible. And if true, that is perhaps sufficient explanation for why conspiracy theorists have anomalies to fasten upon.

Not that conspiracy theorists on any topic actually need real data to support their continuance in their belief, but it would make their job easier.

James writes in a nice folksy manner, notices things that others don’t, and has more logical ability than the average bear. In this instance, he also has a longstanding fascination with the topic that has allowed him to puzzle over the issues a long time. That latter may sound like an endorsement, but I am less sure of that these days. I have read too much recently of how people can persist in an initial belief no matter what contrary data comes along. We might hope that James’s theories are the result of considerable reflection; the possibility that they are merely elaborate rationalizations for the ideas he had as a kid.

There is some of both, here, actually. James is at his best writing about the actual crime/detective/prosecution/popular press stuff. He tells the story. How the cops screwed it up, how the criminal kept on the run, why the newspapers and public jumped to conclusions, why we still believe the wrong version today – James is great at this. He will convince you that most serial killings were not solved in earlier decades because cops refused to believe in them; it will stick in your mind that we usually only catch serial killers because a potential victim gets away; you will get a thorough overview of the crime stories of the past century. Some of them, such as the OJ trial, he admits he sidesteps because he has little to add, but even in those cases, he usually has nugget or two. Lizzie Borden, the Lindbergh baby, Ted Bundy – all present for the discussion.

Bill James is considerably less good when he attempts to draw larger life lessons from these stories – what caused the crime increase of the 60’s, what we should do about prisons, why certain murders fascinate. (As an informal statistics fan, he even develops a method of categorising crime popularity IDQX 9 = an Innocent victim crime with a Dreyfus angle, legit Mystery, sex-related, very big nationally – referring to the Mary Phagan case.) He notices from his reading that the mothers of serial killers tend strongly to have been arrested for prostitution. He speculates, but admits he speculates about this. He notices that national-obsession murder stories aren’t covered in the media for 30 years after the Lindbergh case, but in this case he is pretty insistent that this is because the newspapers realised they had gone over-the-top, were ashamed, and backed off. Well, Maybe. Yet he makes significantly important points in this offhand manner as well. He takes the NPR crowd to task for considering these stories unimportant. When else do we actually debate matters of just punishment, corrupt courts, rights of criminals and victims, and degree of public danger, except in the sensational stories? We talk in cliches - the actual stories are not always so neat. Those who disdain to discuss the sensational because it is too much a matter for the masses and the mob*, he claims, more easily remain stuck in the world of abstracts and generalities. Too delicate to contemplate popular crime, they remain unaffected by real questions.

Did I mention that he likes lists? I mean, really likes lists. His arguments for his conclusions often take that form. Not a problem for me, as I like ‘em too.

Of interest to me is the puzzle of why the initial police theories and the made-for-TV versions of homicides usually make the perpetrators richer, handsomer, and smarter than they actually are, and relatedly, why the public more quickly assumes that the rich, handsome, and smart are guilty – many concluded that JonBenet Ramsey’s parents were guilty even though there was virtually no evidence for that and considerable evidence for other possibilities. That she was in child beauty pageants seemed creepy to people, and so they concluded the parents must be creepy and therefore guilty. I have been wondering in other contexts how much envy and resentment of others drives our political and social behavior, and I file away this seeming insistence by the public that the myth is made clearer when the serial killer is Hannibal Lecter, rather than some in-and-out-of-prison drifter.

James would draw conclusions and try to prove them to you from that. Such as, we assume they are brilliant masterminds because we can’t catch them, but it’s really just because it’s hard to identify motiveless killers. He might succeed in proving them to you, and he might even be right. But he reaches a fair bit.

*That accusation would, uh, include me, BTW. Busted.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

"Of interest to me is the puzzle of why the initial police theories and the made-for-TV versions of homicides usually make the perpetrators richer, handsomer, and smarter than they actually are, and relatedly, why the public more quickly assumes that the rich, handsome, and smart are guilty..,"

Maybe it's due to all the TV and movies we've seen. Maybe we've been somehow led to believe that those of the "lower classes" aren't smart enough to pull it off. As for Ms and TV, it's just better pictures. They don't much like grungy.