Thursday, June 7, 2012


Let's talk about murder.  But first, let's talk some baseball.

One of my favorite movies ever is Moneyball, otherwise known as a victory lap for baseball stat nerds.  The patron saint of baseball stat nerds is a guy named Bill James.  James invented the term 'sabermetrics,' which he defines as 'the scientific analysis of baseball.'  In the early 1980's, he began self-publishing an annual called The Baseball Abstract.   My birthday's in April, within a day or two of when the new Abstract came out every year, vastly simplifying birthday present decisions for my family. 

You cannot imagine the impact James had on me.  Over and over again, he took conventional wisdom and blew it to bits.  I was in grad school at the time--without a doubt, I learned more about scholarship, evidence, deconstruction from Bill James than I did from Derrida or Foucault.  I'd be in class, and we'd be studying semiotics, and I'd think, 'is that true, what that professor just said?  Where's the evidence?  What would Bill James say?' 

Bill James has been retired for years.  By 'retired', I mean he works for the Boston Red Sox, consulting them on player moves, and he writes historical articles, including the Baseball Historical Abstract, the most illuminating, infuriating book on baseball history ever.  He's wrong as often as he's right, but he's always worth reading. 

And now, he's scratched another itch.  He's gotten interested in murder.  His new book:  Popular Crimes: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence

Because he's Bill James, the fact that he doesn't remotely qualify as an expert on murder doesn't even register.  He doesn't care.  He's read everything about murder he can get his hands on, and he draws his won conclusions about things, and he couldn't possibly care less about bad reviews.  He's interested in murder as a pop culture phenomenon, on the horrified fascination we have with murder.  He's not a moralist--the book doesn't lament the fact that we're all murder junkies.  He just assumes that we are.  So he looks at the factors that make one murder famous and other murders not famous.  He works out a system for the statistical analysis of popular murder. 

While he's at it, he also solves some murders. He 'solves' the JonBenet Ramsey murder, for example.  Not that he tells us who-dun-it. His approach: 'here's the most likely scenario, here's a profile of who might have done it, here's the sort of person the cops ought to have been looking for.'
He looks at the O.J. Simpson case, solves who-dun-it--O.J.--then assigns blame for who screwed the case up (the judge--35%, the prosecutors--45%, and so on.) 

My personal favorite chapter has to do with the Kennedy assassination.  He read a lot of books about it--there are a lot of books to read; I've probably read 30 of them--and rips most of them apart.  The various conspiracy theories regarding Kennedy are, in his view, nonsense--too complicated, too convoluted.  He does love one book, though: Bonar Menninger's Mortal Error, which is based on the forensics evidence from a Baltimore ballistics expert named Howard Donahue. His conclusion: there was a second gunman--a Secret Service agent named George Hickey, who heard Oswald's shots, panicked--you can see him in the Zapruder film--and accidentally discharged his firearm, killing the President. 

I love that theory.  That's the one and only theory that makes sense to me.  I don't believe in grand conspiracies.  I do believe in ordinary human screw-ups.  And if Menninger/Donahue/James are right, it makes sense that Hickey (now deceased) never told anyone.  What an embarrassing and humiliating fiasco to own up to. 

Anyway, it's a great book, about murder and our fascination with murder and the way we construct murder in our societal narrative.  Check it out. 

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