Bill James’ ‘Popular Crime': Another Good Story Ruined

Popular Crime

I have procrastinated about looking at Bill James’ “Popular Crime” because, as curious as it may seem, I don’t care much for “true” crime books. Even when they are well done (which is almost never) the subject matter is depressing and more often than not they are written in a bad imitation of “Hollywood Babylon”: “If only Thelma Todd had known that lurking in her darkened garage was a drug-crazed Maurice Chevalier armed with  swizzle stick …  but no, her heart beating fast beneath her skin-tight blouse as she thought only of her tryst with Shemp Howard, she scurried onward toward certain doom as fast as her creamy legs and milky-white thighs would carry her….”

I’m no Kenneth Anger, but you get the idea.

I am a specialist, not a generalist. I don’t do Sal Mineo or  Marilyn Monroe. My forte is the Black Dahlia, and about this case, I know quite a bit.

I was up in Pasadena the other day running errands and after stopping at Canterbury Records, I went to Vroman’s just to get a look at James’ opus.

For me, the Black Dahlia case is the litmus test of anyone who writes about it. After 15 years, I know what to expect – even the latest “daddy did it” claim doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s fun to guess where the author will go off the rails. Will it be the bogus middle name (Elizabeth Ann Short)? The killer doing a henna job on her hair? The noble doorman at the Biltmore ushering the Black Dahlia to her gruesome fate?

I wondered whether James would use “Severed,” which is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction; or “Black Dahlia Avenger,” which claims that Dr. George “Evil Genius” Hodel not only killed Elizabeth Short, but invented the Edsel and discovered Milli Vanilli. Would he go “old school” and pull out “The Badge,” by Jack Webb?

Oh my goodness!

If you subscribe to the notion of “garbage in, garbage out,” then “Popular Crime” is a feast at the landfill.

Are you ready? James’ source is “The Black Dahlia Files” by Donald “Fake Document” Wolfe! This is a book so bad that I actually devoted an entire blog to pulling it apart.  (In case you’re wondering, I emailed Don on April 14, 2006, to see if he would like to explain how a fraudulent document was published in his book. I’m still waiting to hear from him).

James’ first lines on the Black Dahlia case stamp him as a rank amateur as he falls into the “it was a serial killing, only the police didn’t know about serial killings back then” nonsense. And it goes downhill from there.

In addition to being a specialist, I am a completist, so I picked up a copy and started for the cash register, and then I looked at the price tag. THIRTY fricking dollars for this junk? And I put it back.

As I left Vroman’s, I realized once again that publishers don’t want books that are good. They want books that will sell.  “Popular Crime” is clearly for people who may be squeamish about the latest lurid paperback by Michael Newton (a far better researcher) but are comfortable buying something blessed by the New York Times, no matter how lousy it is.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1947, Another Good Story Ruined, Black Dahlia, Books and Authors, Cold Cases, Crime and Courts, Donald Wolfe, History, Hollywood, Homicide, LAPD and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bill James’ ‘Popular Crime': Another Good Story Ruined

  1. Eve says:

    Yeah, I read that book recently and was hugely underwhelmed.

  2. Don Danard says:

    Well said Sir. I got suckered into buying the Wolfe book on The Black Dahlia. It was a laff out loud effort, believe me. He also did an epic on the “murder” of Marilyn Monroe which was hard to believe, too.

  3. hockeykevin says:

    Wow. Canterbury Records! I used to work in the 800 building across the street. Spent many a lunch time over at Canterbury.

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