Archive for June, 2011

June 29, 2011

black swans

by Megan Abbott

For a time, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the book (and movie) Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, which famously told tale tale of “Sybil,” the psyeudoynm of a young woman treated by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur for what the doctor came to feel was multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) .

At around age ten or eleven, the TV movie must have been re-run because I remember many conversations with girls at school, detailing with giddy horror, the terrible punishments Sybil underwent under her psychotic mother’s care, or so the movie relayed. It’s funny to think of it now–I’m embarrassed the palpable excitement we all seemed to feel in the particularly lurid details of the punishments. But it was the nervous laughter of coming upon something deeply secret, or a taboo, or something maybe like our own darkest Grimms-spun nightmares of abuse at the hands of our parents. (If you read Flowers in the Attic, consider the many titillating scenes of maternal and grandmaternal abuse and you will see this particular childhood fascination in full bloom.)

But I wonder if a key part of my interest in the book, as in many books like it (Three Faces of Eve, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) that focused on women in mental health crises, was the notion that these books conveyed something about womanhood that I may have been uninterested in hearing through plainer vehicles (e.g., a book on a female hero, or even feminism!).

The reason I ask is that I recently read an advance copy of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan, which comes out in October. It is an utterly riveting, troubling and troubled book that traces the intertwined fates of the real Sybil (her identity was finally revealed in the 1990s), Dr. Wilbur and the author of the original Sybil, Flora Schreiber.  And it is a harsh exposé that calls into question nearly every aspect of the original book and certainly every aspect of Dr. Wilbur’s treatment of her patient (which apparently involved daily injections of “truth serum” to such a degree that her patient became a full-blown drug addict).

Without getting into the specific charges raised within, Sybil Exposed also stands as a fascinating study of what is was like to be a woman in the midcentury—in particular women who chose alternative paths, or for whom those paths chose them.  The book description notes:

Exposing Sybil combines fascinating, near mythic drama with serious journalism to reveal what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her devoted shrink, and the ambitious journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.

That trio of women at the center of the book all suffered mightily under the professional and personal limitations that their era (1940s-60s). Sybil, struggling with mental health issues (mostly, obsessive compulsive disorder, as we might see it now) that were poorly understood in her small town and within her strict Adventist faith, fought the threat of poverty, a sense out outsiderness and strong stigma. Dr. Wilbur faced the challenges of being one of very few women psychiatrists, coming up at a time when female patients much less female doctors faced strong bias and sometimes abuse. And the book’s author Flora Schreiber spent decades trying to make her name in journalism, to move past the women’s magazine gossamer she was repeatedly hired to spin in favor of something meatier, more significant. Something big.  

One can see the crucible stirring. To Nathan, the result was Sybil, Inc., a multi-millionaire dollar business built on a foundation of lies. (Or, at the very least, well-meaning fabrications and half truths.)

Tracing these women’s paths and their crossing—the way their lives interlocked as they became enmeshed (and enmeshed themselves) in something far beyond their dreams or their capacity to control—it is spellbinding. But the response to the original book and movie is perhaps the best part of the story. Thousands of mostly female readers writing letters to all three women for years about how Sybil spoke to them, about how they too felt they were divided into two, three, four or more women. How they too felt split, divided. Lacking a center, a self.

Much like the women in the 1950s, facing that era’s constructions, made Three Faces of Eve a best-seller, the women of the 1970s, living amid a time of dramatic social tumult and changing gender expectations, Sybil struck a nerve. (And while, according to Nathan, the vast majority of those who wrote to Schreber were women, one can see the appeal across many populations, all of whom face constricting social expectations, the pain of feeling you must wear different masks through life.)

Maybe (probably) this is a massive justification for my own dark childhood reading habits, but I wonder now about we school girls tearing through Sybil’s pages behind locker doors. I wonder if it wasn’t just the sharp horror of tales of abuse (though those of you who remember the book have likely never forgotten these scenes, which are rendered vividly and endlessly) that haunted and drew us in. (And perhaps which most of us read the same way we read V.C. Andrews, missing the point entirely.)  I wonder if, somehow, the book was a our preadolescent way of trying to understand the way we, all of us, must prepare to leave childhood behind and take up the various roles we feel are demanded of us, prescribed for us. We must start donning the mask, and then another, and then another. And we want to see how it’s done.


June 27, 2011

the carousel

by Megan Abbott

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens.  In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, “wherever you go, there you are.”

After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I’ve had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.

Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?

*                *                *

It’s a time machine. That’s what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I’m age ten again, with a ten year old’s wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.

When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.

It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)

courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society

At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers’s movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.

Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.

Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast “nailecrete” panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it’s a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.

Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I’ve come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.

Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I’m in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It’s the classic Freudian “uncanny”—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I’ll pass the Witts’s bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven’t set eyes on in 13 years.

Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I’ll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that’s not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it’s the same, only different. Or you are. And that’s everything.

June 20, 2011

a bell in every tooth

by Megan Abbott

“I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.”                                —Elizabeth Taylor

I’m reading Furious Love (not to be confused with Furious Love), which recounts the tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Prior to reading it, I had no burning interest in the pair but was drawn to it because it’s co-written by Sam Kashner, author of the vivid, gossipy Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties, one of my favorite tinseltown books.

As I began, I suppose I expected the Liz-and-Dick relationship to be some kind of amalgam of Frank and Ava and Albee’s George and Martha. Both analogies have significant weight, but the depth of their connection to each other is woundingly touching, and the giddy, intense bond they had is kind of a heartbreaker as you see the increasing damage done by mind-numbing drink and other excess, career disappointments, Burton’s depression, family sorrows.

I have always loved Richard Burton and he shimmers in these pages. I think one of my favorite cinematic moments is a fleeting moment from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After a night of epic drinking the beleaguered George, watching his wife tantalize another man on the dance floor with some ribald hip shakes, announces wearily—but with distinct admiration, “You have ugly talents, Martha.”

One of the gifts of Furious Love is the rich sense of Burton’s Welsh upbringing, which, to me, feels terrifically exotic and dramatic, with rich descriptions of the life of miners (Burton was the son and brother of miners), Burton’s love of “lava bread,” a Welsh concoction of a “froth of boiled seaweed “plunked down on the plate like a cow pat,” the way his brother’s face was “pocked with little blue marks,” from his years in the mines.

But my favorite part of the book might be the words offered up by Richard Burton himself, both from his various writings, diary entries and from his love letters to Taylor, which she permitted use of for the first time. Many are hopelessly romantic. Some are deliciously dirty, with Burton telling Taylor how he longs for  her “divine little money-box,” the “exquisite softness of the inside of [her] thighs,” and for the “half-hostile” look in her eyes when the pair is “deep in rut.”  That “half-hostile,” to me, is the mark of writerly (and perceptual) brilliance.

While Kashner and his coauthor Nancy Schoenberger are careful not to push the point, there’s a piece of Burton’s stormy past that seems to whisper in our ear constantly as we understand his connection to Taylor. His mother dead when he was only two, Burton was raised mostly by his sister, Cis, whom he viewed in saintly proportions and about whom he wrote lovingly:

I shone in the reflection of her green-eyed, black- haired, gypsy beauty. She sang at her work in a voice so pure that the local men said she had a bell in every tooth… She was naïve to the point of saintliness and wept a lot at the misery of others. She felt all tragedies except her own. I had read of the Knights of Chivalry and I knew that I had a bounden duty to protect her above all creatures. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when I saw her in another woman that I realized I had been searching for her all my life.

We’re always, in our relationships, looking to repeat, recapture past ones, aren’t we? And it isn’t always (or even mostly) a bad thing. Burton and Taylor saved each other for a while, until they couldn’t any longer. As Taylor wrote to Kashner, when releasing Burton’s letters to the biographer, “We had more time but not enough.”

June 19, 2011

Murder, In Song

by karolinawaclawiak

As much as I crave a good book about murder or a crime scene photo to dissect, nothing compares to a musical ballad about murder and mayhem. One of my old favorites is a rendition of “Knoxville Girl” by the Louvin Brothers off the Tragic Songs of Life album (1956). These country brothers crooned about the violent riverside murder of an unnamed young woman by her suitor. Voices sweet and lamenting, the Louvin brothers obscured the shock of violence with their lullaby composition.

“I met a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening, out in her home I’d dwell,

We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town,

I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down.”

You can only imagine where it goes from there.  Listen here.

The Louvin Brothers can’t be credited with inventing the murder ballad. In fact, “Knoxville Girl” is based on an old Irish ballad, “The Wexford Girl”, which has a more elaborate warning against murdering your loved one. Murder Ballads can be traced back even further to England and to the broadsheet ballad “The Cruel Miller” and well, it’s anyone’s game from there.

Now, take the traditional murder ballad and mix it with the poetry of a notorious serial killer, with a nod toward Joyce Carol Oates, and you have Jon Derosa’s “Ladies in Love.” Based on a poem of the same name by Charles Schmid, Jr., DeRosa weaves some lines from Schmid’s prison writing into his evocative ballad and gives us a precise window into the macabre mind of The Pied Piper of Tuscon. For those of you who don’t know, Schmid was an odd character who wreaked havoc on  the city of Tucson in the 1960’s and served as the inspiration for Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, Where are You Going and Where Have You Been?

Photo courtesy of the Tucson Citizen.

He blurred his natural attractive features with cartoonish makeup and clothing, turning himself into a minstrel Elvis Presley – dark tan pancake makeup, white lipstick and the King’s jet black mane. He added his own touches too: a beauty mark on his cheek made from a mixture of putty and axle grease and oversized cowboy boots stuffed with detritus to make him seem taller, attempts at being a more appealing lady magnet to the disaffected youth of Tuscon.

Here, DeRosa has crafted a hauntingly beautiful murder ballad with flutes and woodwinds by Jon Natchez (of Beirut/Yellow Ostrich) and gentle violins and cellos by Claudia Chopek and Julia Kent, respectively.  Schmid’s chilling proclamation that “ladies should never fall in love,” is sung sweetly, like a lullaby by DeRosa. And Schmid’s poetic line about women’s voices “being like small animals waiting to be fed” is seemingly easier to take here, layered and somber. But, his complicated and perverse relationship with his victims isn’t celebrated here; instead, DeRosa’s tale of woe serves as a time capsule of terror that I believe, deserves a place in the history of disquieting murder ballads.

Listen to “Ladies in Love” exclusively on The Abbott Gran Medicine show:

http://soundcloud.com/jonderosa/jon-derosa-ladies-in-love

Jon DeRosa’s Anchored EP can be picked up on Itunes or here.

June 8, 2011

prepare to be amazed!

by Megan Abbott

Recently, I came upon a YouTube clip that felt like uncovering a childhood book at the bottom of an old box. One you don’t remember at all until you see its cracked cover and then every illustration, every odd turn-of-phrase, comes rushing back.

In this case, it was documentary segment dedicated to a miraculous structure called the Coral Castle. Located about 30 miles south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, it is one of those odd buildings—Mystery Castle in Phoenix and Winchester Mystery House in San José are others—that are the result of one “ordinary” person’s eccentric quest to create something extraordinary.

Coral Castle is the improbable—impossible?—product of one man: Edward Leedskalnin, a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. Latvian immigrant who cut, quarried, transported (ten miles), and raised the entire structure, which consists of more than 1,100 tons of coral rock, alone.

While, in that part of Florida, coral can be 4,000 feet thick, Leedskalnin reportedly used only hand-made tools, with no large machinery and no workers assisting him. Among much of the disbelieving press about the Castle—particularly during its early years—much nasty head-shaking was made not just over the fact that one man could build something like this, but that an “illiterate immigrant” could. According to the  Castle’s official website:

When questioned about how he moved the blocks of coral, Ed would only reply that he understood the laws of weight and leverage well. This man with only a fourth grade education even built an AC current generator, the remains of which are on display today. Because there are no records from witnesses his methods continue to baffle engineers and scientists, and Ed’s secrets of construction have often been compared toStonehengeand the great pyramids.

At a certain point during its long construction point, Leedskalnin opened his monument to the public, offering tours for 10 cents. Apparently, he even served up hot dogs for visiting children, the product of a pressure cooker he had invented.

The work of the Castle absorbed him from 1920 until his death in 1951.

The best part of the story, though (for me), is not the triumph of one dedicated (obsessive) man to overcome expectation, engineering, and our conceptions of what’s possible (though that’s pretty good too). It’s the reason why Mr. Leedskalnin built the castle to begin with. I bet you know why.

Like an “everyman” Charles Foster Kane building his Xanadu for his beloved. In this case a woman Leedskalnin referred to as his “Sweet Sixteen,” a young woman with the Dickensian name of Agnes Scuffs. At age 26, Leedskalnin was engaged to Miss Scuffs, ten years his junior, but, legend has it, she broke off the relationship on the eve of their wedding.

A fascinating (and to my mind, quintessentially American) figure, Leedskalnin was not just a sculptor, he was an inventor, a theorist on the properties of magnetism and a writer, the author of five “pamphlets.” Three are dedicated to “Magnetic Current” and one to “Mineral, Vegetable and Animal Life”  The fifth is called A Book in Every Home:  Containing Three Subjects: Ed’s Sweet Sixteen, Domestic and Political Views. In it, Leedskalnin writes about “Sweet Sixteen” as more than a single Agnes Scruffs but a symbol for the kind:

Now, I am going to tell you what I mean when I say, “Ed’s Sweet Sixteen.”  I don’t mean a sixteen year old girl; I mean a brand new one.

Later, he writes:

 …I want a girl the way Mother Nature puts her out.  This means before anybody has had any chance to be around her and before she begins to misrepresent herself.  I want to pick out the girl while she if guided by the instinct alone

And he expand to larger social views:

Everything we do should be for some good purpose but as everybody knows there is nothing good that can come to a girl from a fresh boy. When a girl is sixteen or seventeen years old, she is as good as she ever will be, but when a boy is sixteen years old, he is then fresher than in all his stages of development. He is then not big enough to work but he is too big to be kept in a nursery and then to allow such a fresh thing to soil a girl—it could not work on my girl. Now I will tell you about soiling. Anything that is done, if it is done with the right party it is all right, but when it is done with the wrong party, it is soiling, and concerning those fresh boys with the girls, it is wrong every time.

Indeed, Mr. Leedskalnin. Indeed.

(I do not remember any of these details of the story from when I first became fascinated by the castle—which I’ve yet to see!—at age eight or so. I’m sure, however, that, at that age, I would have taken due note.)

Mr. Leedskalnin never married. While he extended invitations to Agnes Scuffs over the years, she never did see the monument he built for her.

Postscript: I am sure there are folks out there who know much more than I do about Coral Castle (Dennis, help me!), or who have visited it. If so, tell me more!

June 6, 2011

hurry up please it’s time

by Megan Abbott

Sunday’s New York Times ran an interesting piece that speculated about why Hollywood seems to have so few (and even fewer successful) movies with preadolescent girls (roughly ages nine to 14) at the center. While the book market for this age group is booming, the carryover to film has been far less reliable. While movies like 13 certainly depict the perils (in a way that reminded me mostly of the best art-directed after-school special ever) of the age, this article focuses instead on movies targeting preadolescent girl viewers.

The author, Pamela Paul, speculates as one of the reasons these movies struggle is that  “The tween occupies a shifting space between the girl who has carefree adventures and the sexy teenager who angsts. It’s a phase that makes both parents and Hollywood executives uncomfortable.”

I’m sure this is true. My new book, The End of Everything, is from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl and I guess I picked that age because there is hardly a time of more “cuspiness.” It’s a time when the world still seems (at least, in my generation) mysterious. Even when your days are mostly filled with the tedium of school and killing time and searching desperately for moments of unsupervised anything, you are old enough to peer into a world infinitely more exotic, substantial and intoxicating than your own. To get a taste of it. It’s such an eye to the key-hole age. But, of course, you usually don’t know what to do once those doors creak—or fling—open.

One of the films mentioned in the piece as a rare positive example is The Man in the Moon (1991), which I remember getting it pretty right. The main character, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), is 14 and develops a crush on her 17-year-old neighbor.  The two begin a flirtation but once the neighbor meets Dani’s more age appropriate sister, everything feels taken from her.  There are some dark plot turns, but they are not sordid ones. And they feel very real.

The Man in the Moon is set in the 50s, and, thinking too of 14-year-old Matty Ross in True Grit, I wonder if period films manage this better, or we manage them better. They feel less close to us. Less close to home. And the social mores, more conservative, seem to assure us we won’t be confronted with what we face today. Because we always feel everything is more dangerous now, and young girls—we still invest so much in their purity, their goodness.

When I was nine the “teen sex comedy” Little Darlings came out. I still remember the tagline distinctly: “Don’t Let the Title Fool You.” The stars were Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal, who my favorite child actress as a kid (Bad News Bears, now that’s a preadolescent girl character you can write home about).

With its summer camp-virginity-loss-bet, I was too young to see it, but I remember being so tantalized and so terrified of it at the same time. I think I was fairly fascinated by it and when I eventually did see it, years later, I was surprised. For all its trying-too-hard raunch, at heart it’s a movie eager to, intermittently, show something real—about the thorny relationships girls can have with each other (including as complicated by class issues) and most of all about the ways curiosity and competition can push you into some pretty hard corners.  Kristy McNichol in particular gives her part so much subtlety, digging into the rawest parts of the story. And the outcome of the “bet” felt utterly, painfully real.

The girls in the movie are 15, and I think most girls like movies/books where the female leads are a couple of years older. And had I seen it as young girl, I think it would have been a complicated gift, but a gift nonetheless.

June 4, 2011

we will return!

by Megan Abbott

The Ladies Gran and Abbott apologies for the delay in our programming.  Sara is embarking on the tour for the extraordinary Claire De Witt and the City of the Dead—do not miss her! I myself will be catching her at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on Monday, June 13.

I sadly have no excuse other than finding myself in a black hole of deadlines.  But I plan to claw my way to daylight, Buffy-style, this week!

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….