Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: Popular Crime

I continue to have mixed feelings about reviewing books because I think I'm basically polluting my own waters by commenting on my fellow writers. But things are changing so quickly in the book-writing world with the advent of e-publishing, that I'm not sure that I will even have a viable writing career unless I take the bull by the horns myself and extract myself from the current publishing model. My latest novel (a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice set in the mystery writing world) is currently been rejected by a number of agents, and I'm seriously now looking to self-publish it. I think it's a fun book and a decent read, but no takers so far. I refuse to let it sit on my hard drive--after all I spent a year of my life working on it-- so as the rejections roll in, I'm now leaning toward publishing it myself.

How in the hell does this relate to book reviews? Well, I'm really curious at what is currently being published, because I know so many authors with a tried and true record of sales who are being dropped by their publishers. I follow what is being published fairly closely to try to get a handle on the market and see if I fit in (um, no), and increasingly I'm in shock at what is hitting the shelves.

To whit. (I love typing that.) Bill James' book Popular Crime."Now I understand he's written something of the bible on baseball and I really do like his style. It's the type of writing that always charms me. Breezy, funny, knows when to turn off the sarcasm and get serious (something I struggle with). I cannot fault him his voice in this book, and I have an admittedly unabashed (and unapologetic!) fascination with crime. This writer even got a spot on Colbert, which is why I bought it.

But. It's not a book. There's no central theme, no overreaching arc that I could point to and say, this is what Bill James' thinks of crime. I know what he thinks of specific crimes, but I don't have much of handle on what he thinks our relationship to crime should be. Seriously, that it was a book at its most sneaky is trying to do. Woo you over to the dark side. This can't woo us because it's too far-reaching and not specific enough.

It would have worked as series of magazine articles. Maybe. It's largely a catalogue of gruesome crimes, with some not-so-veiled criticisms of the legal system, criticisms of the police, a panache of historical commentary, and his opinions on various crimes (did Lizzie Borden do it sort of thing). That's it. There's the throwing out of possible themes but none of them gel into what I would call a central theme that runs through all these anecdotes. And I kept looking for it, something that binds all this together in one package and, well, it's not there. It seems to me that something could be made about popular crime and the media, how it changed over history. People's reading habits. Did technology fuel the interest in violent crime. If yes, how? If no, why not? He tries to get there but he doesn't ever succeed because I think there's too much of him in the books for that to work. Plus, that would have taken some deep wading into sociological issues that I don't think he's interested in exploring. He could have written a book about police departments and the historical evolution of crime fighting. Mistakes that are no longer made. Mistakes that are continuing to be made. And, again, there's hints of this but no real cigar we can smoke. I can think of several directions this book could have gone in, and the principle problem is that it touched on many but refused to dedicate itself to one or even two themes.

As I end up saying nearly every time I write one of these reviews: where is his editor? Once again, we have a very decent writer who doesn't have a lighthouse operator showing him his way. That is what a good editor does. She/he is the beam of light that says, "This is your safe harbor. That idea, that construct, that context is going to smash your writerly efforts on some pretty nasty rocks. Come this way."

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