Posts tagged ‘black dahlia’

June 1, 2011

called on account of darkness

by Vince Keenan

The rise of Bill James is the secret fantasy of every bookish type. The details are practically Dickensian. James, a lifelong obsessive baseball fan, begins recording his thoughts on the game while working as night watchman at a Kansas pork and beans factory. He assembles what he calls a book, almost six dozen photocopied pages long, and sells it via a single ad in The Sporting News. Only seventy-five people would buy the 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else. But those happy few would be present at the birth of a legend.

James’s approach is based on rigorous objective analysis or as James put it, “counting things.” It dared to challenge much of baseball’s conventional wisdom, which in a sport that prizes its traditions is tantamount to heresy. James had a steadily growing number of admirers among hardcore fans, but the powers that be thought him a crank. Until they didn’t.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball beautifully recounts what happened next. The front office of the Oakland Athletics relied on Jamesean analysis, known as sabermetrics, to turn a cash-strapped small-market franchise into a perennial contender. Other teams followed suit. James himself would become an advisor to the Boston Red Sox. His ideas would spread to other disciplines; Nate Silver applied the science of fantasy baseball to the American electoral process in 2008 and became a political guru. The man who, as Lewis wrote, “perfected the art of sounding like a sane man in an insane world” ultimately persuaded that world to think as he did. James represents the triumph of the wonk, the vindication of the studious kid watching others play outside, confident in the knowledge that they’re doing it wrong.

Bill James’s other great passion is crime stories, which he tackles in his new book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. I share those two interests, so I picked up a copy. Little did I know when I cracked it open, coincidentally during the uproar following the Casey Anthony verdict, what a singularly odd experience I had in store. Popular Crime would prove to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever loved.

To begin, how to describe it? The subtitle, for instance, is a misnomer in that it sounds judgmental while the book itself is not. James is an unabashed enthusiast of crime stories, and laments that “opinion-makers and the ‘opinion elites’ … turn up their noses” at them. James, on the other hand, is eager to discuss them at length. In nearly 500 pages he surveys decades of tabloid fodder. It’s a deeply idiosyncratic study; James did no original research, basing his conclusions solely on exhaustive reading. It soon becomes apparent that James has been thinking about crime for years, and now wants to share his many, many thoughts. That sense of beliefs long bottled up finally spilling forth powers the book through some bizarre passages. Michael Lewis described the Baseball Abstracts as “one long, elaborate aside.” The same holds true of Popular Crime.

James breezes through horrors infamous and otherwise, sizing up the evidence and issuing his own verdicts. He makes a case for Lizzie Borden’s innocence that surprisingly holds water, blasts the widely accepted “solution” to the mystery of the Zodiac Killer’s identity, logically argues that Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, could not have been her murderer’s first or only victim. His take on the Kennedy assassination, based on ballistic evidence from a single source, is less convincing yet disturbingly plausible in an Occam’s Razor kind of way.

James engages in some bravura historical profiling of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, aka the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. He even plays favorites. It galls James that the enterprising serial murderer H. H. Holmes has been the subject of only one book, Erik Larson’s acclaimed The Devil in the White City, when by contrast “Jack the Ripper, as much as the British love him, was just some dumb jackass with a knife who ran around slashing hookers. And there are 75 books about him.” Only Bill James could view a man who built a “torture castle” near the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair like an undervalued infielder who draws a lot of walks.

The book is at its best when dealing with how crimes are reported and by extension remembered. James astutely assesses the evolution of the American press, noting that in the wake of the Lindbergh kidnapping—Bruno Hauptmann done it, in James’s opinion—media consolidation kept sensationalistic impulses in check until the next “Crime of the Century,” O. J. Simpson (also guilty), when the cable news landscape resembled the earlier era.

James consumes true crime books, rightly observing that aside from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood the form is largely ignored, and peppers Popular Crime with terse, unsparing reviews. While he admires The Devil in the White City, James disdains the author’s “turn-up-your-nose-at-the-crime-story attitude … Did you ever know one of those people in college who was a good guy but so responsible that you always wanted to set his shoes on fire? It’s 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and he’s studying his Latin. Larson is kind of like that.” Jolene Babyak’s book on Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” suffers because it includes excerpts of Stroud’s own unpublished manuscripts. “Stroud’s writing is trim and graceful, while Babyak’s is harsh and blocky.” James also comments regularly on the once de rigueur TV movie and miniseries adaptations spawned by these books, which rightly or wrongly are as much a part of the recollection of such crimes as police reports and trial transcripts are.

But 500 pages of such detail-oriented fixation takes it toll. The opening chapters are like falling into conversation with a cantankerous but engaging fellow at a bar. A few drinks later, you find yourself eyeing the exits and wondering “Is this guy nuts?” James compares the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, which presented the two radicals “as simple men swept up in a tide of onrushing events,” to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro “finding themselves portrayed by their lawyer as Gilligan and the Skipper.”

An obvious observation made in a book about the Jon-Benet Ramsey case—the Ramseys are innocent, by the by—is met with the timeless rejoinder “No shit, Sherlock.” He interrupts his train of thought for digressions both relevant (the excesses of the Warren Court) and not (how to save the American automobile industry). He addresses readers directly, identifying passages written years earlier and hinting at ideas he’s hoarding for a future book.

The last third of Popular Crime is something of a slog, focused largely on a subject James doesn’t care for:

The stories of serial murderers are repetitive and gloomy, but I will tell a few of them and then meet with my editor to decide which ones to throw out, and the ones we throw out I will throw up on the internet.

And then—then—are James’s efforts to bring his vaunted statistical analysis to bear, crafting a sabermetrics of crime. James lists his eighteen categories for classifying a crime by level of public interest; devises a new ten-level penal system; and develops a six-tiered ranking of witness descriptions offered to the police. Most impressive and deeply foolhardy by turns is the value system he assigns to evidence, weighting various types in wholly arbitrary fashion with a score of 100 required to convince a skeptic.

Michael Lewis wrote that Bill James set out to prove in baseball “that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible.” But here James’s efforts fall woefully short. Evil, for lack of a better term, is a lot like that ineffable quality in sports known as heart. It’s an intangible. It cannot be measured.

But that willingness to make the attempt is why I found James’s bizarre opus so compelling. He claims, “I am trying to write here about the serious consequences of the trivial events.”

At other times, Popular Crime is a prickly defense of his interest in a subject frequently frowned-upon by cultural arbiters. Ultimately, though, the book is a sincere attempt to identify what it is about the darkness that fascinates and lures so many of us.

See also Bill James’s memorable appearance on the Colbert Report….

April 1, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

by Sara Gran
Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan

Image via Wikipedia

Megan and a few other smart folks suggested that to understand DePalma, you’d want to watch Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. So I did. Wow. As most of you know (I’ve realized most of my readers have a much better film education than I do), this is a movie about a filmmaker, warped by a psychologist father with a sharp gaze, who does some very nasty things in his free time. The DePalma influence is pretty obvious: filming, fathers, girls, murder, pornography, psychology, tension, random murderous phallic symbols (in all senses of the term, I think).

Here’s what you don’t know. I’ve been working on a few Unnanounced Media Projects, as I’ve mentioned before. This is pretty common when you’re a writer with some years and sales and/or attention and/or luck under your belt–people hire you to write stuff that hasn’t been officially announced, so you can’t tell anyone about it. (irrelevant but odd: most of these projects never see the light of day, and since the copyright is usually held by whoever hired you, these projects often dissappear into a black hole of never-happened and never-read). These projects could be comic books, films, advertising projects, ghostwriting–you can imagine the rest.

So I’ve been working on one Unannounced Media Project for about six months now, and the work has picked up speed the past few months–just about the time I’ve been immersing myself in Brian DePalma. But I hadn’t seen Peeping Tom until about a week ago. And in my project, I wrote: three characters who had the same professions and perversions of characters in Peeping Tom, three strange and specific items that are seen in Peeping Tom (I’m sure it will be OK if I say one is a jeweled brooch in the shape of an insect, to give an idea of the level of specificity I’m talking about), and a character who shares a not-everyday name with a character in Peeping Tom, and a number of harder-to-name similarities in tone, style, POV, and pace. One scene in particular could have been entirely lifted from Peeping Tom. Except, of course, I’d never seen it.

For a few years I’ve been interested in the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (who I can’t read at all, because I find him impossible to understand, so I just read about), and in particular one book by a Lacanian psychologist named Annie Rogers called The Unsayable–I’ve mentioned it often. This all reminded me of a story from the book: there was a family where the mother had a terrible secret, one she’d never told anyone, from her childhood. Years later she had a teenaged daughter, and the whole family was in therapy with Annie Rogers, and the mother finally confessed her secret. And the daughter burst out that she’d been having dreams about the incident all of her life.

I think it’s kind of incredible how we’re never saying what we think we’re saying, and we’re never hearing what we think we’re hearing. No matter how conscious you are, we seem to be incapable of really understanding the conversation we’re having with each other and with the world around us. And that’s probably for the best. Until you wake one day and realize you’ve been entirely wrong about exactly every second of your life, which happens pretty often and is always a little odd.

March 4, 2011

dream (il)logic

by Megan Abbott

Now and again, I go through phases—frequently as a result of poor (yet legitimately pharmaceutical) choices—of bad dreams.

I am in the middle of such a phase (including an especially terrifying one involving angry squirrels). And it’s a real drag right now because I’m revisiting one of my favorite true crime books, the highly contested Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel. A retired LA cop, Hodel  devotes hundreds of pages to proving that his father, George Hodel, is not only the killer of Elizabeth Short, AKA “The Black Dahlia,” but possibly scores of other women in Los Angeles in the 1940s (and earlier, and later).

I have conversations with folks about this book at least every few weeks. It seems there are many of us who are haunted by its particular blend of truthiness, utter throw-the-book-across-the-room implausibility and the humming ring of real, and deeply haunting, truth.

Going back to bad dreams, though—well, this book gives me very bad dreams. It’s a disturbing, exotic and strange world George Hodel lived in—doctor, lothario, friend to surrealists, decadent. And Steve Hodel renders it well.  (Do read Craig McDonald‘s wonderful Toros and Torsos novel and the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder for more on this world.)

The point is, I cannot possibly read this book before I go to sleep.  Instead, I am watching Larry Sanders, or reading The Believer’s first-rate film issue (more on that in the days to come). But it reminds of conversations Sara and I have had about the possibility of “directing” our own dreams (and about lucid dreaming). Can one “will” bad dreams away—or more pointedly set the stage for good ones?

This is all a long (sleepless) way of saying, speaking of surrealism, I got a postcard in the mail from my dad:

The caption is “Gadget Dance, 1936,”  and it’s Depression-era timestamp is significant. But the main thing is, I smiled very widely when I got it, and have placed it above my computer.

This picture, like so many of those Busby Berkeley musical numbers from the 30s, are sometimes what we think of when we think of dreamscapes. So my goal tonight, is to dream my way into this.

Personally, I want to be the washing machine girl in the back, with the balloon bubbles. (Who can tell me what the girl behind the oven and next to the radio is supposed to be? Jack, I’m asking you!).

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