Popular Crime and The Invention of Murder

By Bill James
By Judith Flanders

In his Introduction to True Crime: An American Anthology, Harold Schechter quickly canvases some of the justifications for this disreputable genre. Does “writing that caters to the public’s need to hear the whole disturbing story” allow for vicarious self-indulgence (Plato: “the virtuous man is content to dream what the wicked man really does”)? Or do we learn moral lessons from sordid tales representing the public punishment of the id (Freud) or an affirmation of social norms (Durkheim)? There is, Schechter admits, no single answer to this complex question since people “read about true crime for many reasons and on many levels.” That the question has to be addressed (especially given the material’s canonization in the Library of America) is the essential point. True crime is always on trial.

Well-known baseball authority and true crime aficionado Bill James objects to the genre’s ghettoization (shelved “right next to the pornography”), and the absence of any public discussion of its real importance. What he means by public discussion here is not prurient or sensationalist media coverage – there’s always been plenty of that – but asking questions about why some crimes are more popular with the public than others, and what such stories have to tell us about the functioning of the criminal justice system.

Popular Crime is an odd, bordering on unique book. By his own account James has been writing it “for more than twenty years,” and the feel it has is of being drawn into a long dinner-time argument with a garrulous and intellectually idiosyncratic host over headlines of the day. Like a lot of people, James wants to see that justice is being done and is therefore impatient with the current way of doing things. So, for example, he would like “to propose a structured system to enable us to think more clearly about evidence in criminal cases, so that, in theory, injustice might be avoided, and justice might be delivered, a little more often”:

I have read books about people who were convicted on what seemed to me to be very flimsy evidence, because the prosecutor was much better at selling his evidence than the defence lawyer was. I have read books about people who walked free despite what seemed like overwhelming evidence. These things would happen less often if people thought more clearly about evidence. . . .
A trial is rather like a basketball game at which no one keeps score, but at the end of the game the audience is asked to vote on which team has played better. All games are supposed to be on a neutral court. I am trying to propose, because I am too ignorant to understand this is impossible, a system of keeping score.

As with most argumentative people, that things might “seem” otherwise to people with other points of view becomes a point of personal frustration. But one doesn’t have to be a lawyer or to have gone to law school to know that the current “structured system” for thinking clearly about evidence is the result of centuries of trial-and-error, a vast edifice designed to be comprehensible to lay jurors while balancing competing interests and rights. James’s breezy confidence that he can whip up something better on the spot is truly remarkable.

Rules against the admission of hearsay evidence, for example, are serially inveighed against. “The defence [in the Neulander case] argued that this was hearsay, which I don’t care whether it was or not; I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t believe in those rules.” And elsewhere: “whenever a jury is sheltered from the facts, there is a risk of injustice resulting.” Therefore, keeping hearsay evidence from a jury may be “right by the law, but . . . wrong in a larger sense.” Such silly exclusionary rules are, we are told, why O. J. Simpson walked free: “not because O. J.’s jury was stupid, but because O. J.’s jurors had been living for months in a meticulously constructed bubble in which they were denied facts about the case that were available to everybody else in the country.” I guess this means if they’d been allowed to watch television news coverage and read the tabloids at the time they wouldn’t have been so led astray.

In a whimsical manner that may draw from his baseball background, James in his role as loud dinner host seeks to persuade the reader with his own weighting system for evidence. Individual bits of evidence convince him 10 percent, or are scored at a value of 10 points. It’s amusing, but one simply can’t make such a necessarily subjective process into a numbers game. At the end of the day James is still only playing advocate for his own points of view. Some of the time he is convincing, or at least makes a decent case. Sometimes he fails. Unfortunately, one of the latter instances comes in his discussion of the Jon Benet Ramsey case.

“My greatest fear, in writing this book, is that I will be unable to convince you that John and Patsy Ramsey had nothing to do with the death of their daughter. . . . I feel a responsibility to do what I can to clear their names, and I fear that I will be unequal to the challenge. I will do my best.” This sounds like a counsel for the defence introducing his closing arguments, and in what follows James does in fact do a reasonable job of trying to instill the requisite reasonable doubt. This isn’t hard, given that it remains a baffling case, but where the analysis goes off the rails is when James starts writing his own novel based on the crime. “The perpetrator’s central goal was to destroy the life of John Ramsey,” he blithely tells us. I find such a conclusion preposterous, but James goes on to dramatically expand on it, engaging in pages of pure speculation. As amateur advocacy, this is fine. But the presence of so much advocacy is part of what makes Popular Crime such an odd – both engaging and frustrating – book.

There is a key question that is raised (again and again) in both Popular Crime and its cross-the-pond counterpart, Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: what is it about a particular crime that grabs hold of the public’s imagination? We can’t just blame the media here. If it bleeds, it leads, but not everything that bleeds and leads sells papers, attracts viewers, and has legs. James, predictably, has his own secret formula and coding system with up to eighteen (gulp) components. The results resemble a line score (the JonBenet case is IQBX 9). But even these eighteen elements are not exhaustive. He also adds at another point that something “that will cause an everyday, run-of-the-mill crime to erupt into a media circus is fictional elements” (“things that a fiction writer might put into a story to make it more interesting, but which commonly would not be part of a real-life crime if you picked one at random”). And at yet another point he stresses the importance of a tragic (“almost as Aristotle defined tragedy”) element.

“What makes one murder catch the interest of the public, while another leaves it cold, is a mystery.” This is Judith Flanders’s conclusion, but one she can’t help worrying over. Why was Eugene Aram’s rather pedestrian murder of Daniel Clark in 1745 such a perennial hit while “for some reason, despite an extraordinary series of bizarre details, the case of Christiana Edmunds never really caught the public imagination”? Obvious factors were often in play, especially for the status-conscious Victorians: “What class the murderer was, what class the victim was, how the death occurred, all these things made a great deal of difference to public interest.” We have to be on guard against the hired help slipping poison in our tea while at the same time thrilling to the murder of Whitechapel prostitutes. (James has a characteristically blunt theory with regard to this, about how “the interest that we take in a crime” is proportional to how much it invades our tribal space. And so the “murders of black people tend not to explode as popular crime stories because we tend, on some level, to perceive them as not belonging to ‘our’ group, our camp.”)

Flanders’s book is both an anthology of Victorian true crime and an account of how the media of the day – in particular newspapers, novels and plays – both represented (typically in an irresponsible way) and commercialized murder, thus “creating” the phenomenon of modern crime. At least, that is, as a literary genre. Very much in step with the times was fanboy Charles Dickens, who becomes almost a chorus for Flanders. Dickens, after all, became the most popular author of his day by giving the public just what it wanted: the same thing he did.

Conforming to stereotype, the American James is a breezy amateur, the British Flanders a professional critic. The Invention of Murder is a more sensible, intensively-researched book but fails to synthesize its material into an overarching thesis. Various forms of murder are surveyed, but the effect is of reading about one bloody thing after another. Popular Crime is a decidedly mixed bag, with digressions into the efficacy of police sketches, true crime movies, car companies, and the awful impact of the 1960s on the justice system. Still, it feels as though it’s missing some pieces. Though it announces itself as a book about crime books, and often suggests further reading, it doesn’t even include a bibliography. There are also many important crimes left out entirely. One can understand James’s desire to avoid writing about serial killers (and so, for example, making no mention of the truly iconic ghoul Ed Gein), but other notable absences include Charles Ponzi and his eponymous scheme, the Haymarket Bombings, and Timothy McVeigh.

Both books address, without finally answering, the question of what it is that makes crime in general, and some crimes in particular, so popular. I think this is because there is no final general or particular answer. It is a sad fact, and one that Flanders begins by drawing our attention to, that “we are more interested in murderers than we are in their victims.” That said, very few murderers (or criminals of any ilk) are particularly interesting people. In his essay “Decline of the English Murder” George Orwell held that “crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.” He (ironically) deplored the fact that this no longer seemed to be the case, with middle-class English crimes of passion being replaced by lowbrow American-style joy killings. I doubt, however, that there has been any real decline. Rather our fascination in crime, which extends to the most bog stupid examples, seems to be the same as that we have for any pathological human phenomenon for which there is no cure. I don’t think the virtuous man dreams what the wicked man does, but he can recognize something of himself in Mr. Hyde.

Review first published online June 27, 2011.