James’s analyses are plenty sharp. He makes very convincing cases for Sam Sheppard’s guilt and for the innocence of Leo Frank and JonBenet Ramsey’s parents. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” gets his vote for best crime book, and “The Onion Field” is “the best movie ever made about a crime.”
James interrupts his gripping murder narratives to put in his two cents on how the system should work. Describing himself as “a very bad liberal,” he castigates his brethren for being enamored of the rights of the accused and convicted, but he also goes after conservatives for being too infatuated with tough punishment. He blames the explosion of U.S. crime rates between 1964 and 1976 on the liberalizing decisions of the Earl Warren Supreme Court, including the one that established the Miranda warning. “The damned foolishness of the Warren Court unleashed upon us a torrent of criminal violence which pitched the nation backward into atavistic attitudes about crime and punishment,” he concludes. The recent tightening-up marked an improvement, in his view, though now the system is too harsh.
Experts will immediately object to the armchair nature of James’s amateur enterprise. In his defense, he is at the ready with plenty of disclaimers. “I’m not expert enough,” “I’m oversimplifying things I but dimly understand,” “I’m not a real historian,” “I’m not an investigative reporter; I’m just a guy who reads a lot of crime books.” He also writes: “I’m not expert in any of this,” “I have no credentials to critique the work of homicide cops,” and “I’m not a ballistics expert.” Indeed, his complete focus on high-profile murders can induce myopia. Read this book, and you’ll never realize that murders make up only .14 percent of reported U.S. crime and that the murder rate now is almost exactly what it was in 1964. You’ll read barely a word about organized crime, Prohibition or the modern-day phenomenon of the drug trade. In my mind, the explosion of the drug trade and the social unrest of the 1960s had at least as much to do with rising crime rates as any rulings by the Warren court, but James does not entertain that possibility.
His favorite solution to the dilemma of crime — more rehabilitation or more punishment? — is to take the 2.3 million people incarcerated in America and disperse them into facilities with populations of no more than 24, the better to reintegrate them into society and segregate the bad from the very, very bad. But do the math. That’s nearly 100,000 miniprisons. James believes there would be a great savings because a single guard using electronic surveillance could watch several mini-prisons, which would be housed in strip malls and on the floors of office buildings. Don’t hold your breath.
In the end, James’s layman status is a big part of this book’s bracing charm. And his real point is more universal. He loves crime books and wants you to love them, too, and not just because they’re a good way to pass the time in a motel room or airport. He wants you to take them seriously, as he does, and consider the ways they reflect and reshape the culture, what they say about our justice system and our very concept of justice. “We are trying to have a serious discussion of Trash here,” James writes, and popular crime stories “are much more central to American history than most people understand.” He wants you and America’s intelligentsia to lose your condescension when talking about them.
No argument here.
Jeff Leen is the investigations editor of The Washington Post.