What Makes Crime Go Pop?
Celebrated baseball writer Bill James is best known for turning the sport on its head with his stats-based approach to team-building. But in his down time, the Moneyball inspiration reads true crime stories—more than 1,000 of them so far—and compiled them into a book, Popular Crime. In the age of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Pistorius, we asked him about the conditions needed for a crime to grab the masses by the throat.
1. Conflicting evidence
The numbers don’t add up. What he said doesn’t line up with what she said. The cops couldn’t find the weapon. The DNA samples don’t match. “To me these are the most interesting cases. You are trying to weigh the evidence and ask yourself, ‘Am I convinced by this, or more convinced by the other side.’ ”
2. Could he be innocent?
If there is even a glimmer of a doubt that the defendant is guilty, that will inspire wide debate. “These cases really put your nerves on edge because they could happen to any of us. You’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
3. What was the jury thinking?
Jurors are thrown into a void where no outside thoughts or opinions are allowed, which often leads to a massive disconnect between public opinion and final verdict. “We get frustrated when we feel that a sense of justice has not been served. It’s when everyone in the world knows something except the people in the jury. It’s hard to make a perfect system, but the U.S. sure as hell doesn’t have it.”
4. The more blood, the better
There is something about excessive violence and the lurid accounts of a murder that taps into our base emotions. “One of the basic rules of crime stories is that we are looking inside the soul of human nature by looking outside our own experiences, and that’s why these cases are intriguing. When something is really unusual about a crime, people react to it.”
5. Themes of our times
Stories with socially relevant themes that stimulate national debate carry weight above almost all other ingredients. “A crime that strikes a nerve sets off a kind of cycle. It’s like we’ve hit a gold mine; because we’ve had this rush of stories about the deaths of black teenage males recently, every time there is a case that seems like it might hit that pattern it gets in the media.”