“Popular Crime” is a very entertaining book, and it will instigate arguments even as it scores many important points. But first, it’s necessary to say what it isn’t. It is not a book about criminology, crime in America or crime policy, and it is not a work of history, sociology or journalism. There is no original research here. It is, quite simply, a book about crime stories, written by a guy who says he’s read about a thousand of them. By popular crime, James means “tabloid crime,” or what is called in the bookstores “true crime,” mainly murder. He’s interested in the big stories that dominate and drive — or are driven by — the media: JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson, the Zodiac Killer, the JFK assassination, Sam Sheppard, the Black Dahlia, the Lindbergh kidnapping. All the greatest hits are here, and so are many more that have been forgotten by history: Elma Sands, Mary Phagan, George Parkman, Caryl Chessman and on and on.
The deep historical perspective James gets from plumbing all these secondary sources is his great strength. He can tell you that the murder of 22-year-old shop girl Sands in Manhattan on Dec. 22, 1799, was the first big popular crime story of 19th-century America, with both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton engaged as defense lawyers for the accused, a laborer named Levi Weeks. After a two-day trial, the longest in the history of the city, Weeks, who was guilty as sin, was acquitted in five minutes.
James can tell you that the murder of 19-year-old cigar-store girl Mary Rogers in 1841 and the subsequently botched investigation led to both Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and a reorganization of the New York City police department. He can tell you that in 1892Lizzie Borden couldn’t have taken an ax and given her mother 40 whacks because she would have been covered with blood spatter with no way to clean it off. And that the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta in 1913 led to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the lynching of Leo Frank. And so on.
James marks the first golden age of tabloid crime from roughly 1880 to 1925, its last gasp coming in 1932 with the Lindbergh case, after which newspapers began to clean up their act in pursuit of respectability as the business began a long consolidation. A second golden age began around 1990, after the Menendez brothers murdered their parents in Los Angeles, and it reached new heights when O.J.’s escapades converged with the explosion of cable channels.
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.