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Heart of darkness

In his new book, Red Sox stats whiz Bill James looks inside the criminal mind

Bill James (at the Boylston Street T station), who is best known for publishing “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,’’ reexamines infamous murders in “Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.’’ Bill James (at the Boylston Street T station), who is best known for publishing “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,’’ reexamines infamous murders in “Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.’’ (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2011

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Ever since his childhood, Bill James has been obsessed with Murderers’ Row. No, not the 1927 Yankees. James, the highly regarded baseball statistician known for his scrupulous rethinking of the way the game is evaluated, has a similarly consuming interest in the real-life psychopaths for whom the team of Ruth and Gehrig was nicknamed.

Known as the sharp-eyed analyst who single-handedly overhauled baseball strategy, James has also devoted an inordinate amount of his time to the study of major murder cases. After publishing several editions of “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract’’ and other groundbreaking works of research, the big man from Kansas — a Red Sox adviser since 2003 — has finally completed his first book on his other favorite topic.

“Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence’’ is a hefty exploration of the most infamous murder cases in American history, ranging from Lizzie Borden and Caryl Chessman to the Boston Strangler and O.J. Simpson. James, 61, has theories about them all — who was guilty, who was falsely accused, why the justice system can never be perfected, and why our prisons desperately need a radical revision.

But his real aim is to examine our national appetite for true crime sagas. Why do they command so much of our attention, and are there social benefits to be earned from our collective walks on the wild side?

He’s no expert, he cautions. “I’ve said it repeatedly — I’m just a guy who reads lots of crime stories,’’ said James, walking the streets of his old neighborhood, in the shadow of Fenway Park, a few hours before a recent bookstore appearance. “I’m not a reporter,’’ he said. “What I’m good at is putting things in perspective.’’

Retracing the Strangler’s steps For several years after his Red Sox hiring, James and his family lived near the Boston-Brookline border. Bill’s wife, Susan, was earning her master’s degree in art history at Boston University (among her specialties: ritual execution banners from medieval Italy). He found himself walking the streets of the city — down to Coolidge Corner, over to Commonwealth Avenue, up past Symphony Hall. These streets, he knew, were the stomping grounds of the Boston Strangler, whoever he was.

In “Popular Crime,’’ James sides with those who believe that Albert DeSalvo, the institutionalized criminal who confessed to the Strangler killings, was not involved in the early murders, which began in 1962. For one thing, DeSalvo told police he drove to his victims’ apartments. To James, that story just doesn’t ring true: Each of the Boston-based murders (the case eventually spread to Lynn, Lawrence, and Salem) occurred within a stone’s throw of an MBTA stop on the Green Line.

“These are not places you would drive to,’’ said James, sitting on a bench outside one of the victim’s buildings, wearing an undertaker’s suit and black slip-on walking shoes. “True, it’s a little hard to envision what the traffic situation was like in Boston in 1963, but I don’t think it was a lot better than it is now.’’

Questioning established wisdom He has no doubt that some criminologists will criticize his amateur sleuthing. “Start with the proposition that there are a lot of people who know a lot more about the Boston Strangler case than I do,’’ he said. “Their reaction will probably be, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I’m quite sure people will point out what’s wrong with the theory, and they may be right.’’

In fact, Northeastern criminology professor James Alan Fox said he would take James’s pronouncements with a grain of salt, “or maybe the whole salt shaker.’’

“I welcome his point of view the same way I welcome anybody’s,’’ said Fox, an author and television correspondent who writes the Crime & Punishment blog on Boston.com. “Society is made up mostly of nonexperts, and how they feel tends to influence public policy. The fact that he’s a smart guy who pays a lot of attention makes him a better-informed member of the nonexpert cadre than most.’’

James makes no bones about his disdain for academics. He carved his path by questioning the established wisdom of the national pastime, and he brings the same skepticism to his crime studies.

“The public perception of him is that he’s a stats-head — all formulas and numbers,’’ said Brant Rumble, James’s editor at Scribner. “If you read his writing, you know it’s more about taking a new approach — reversals of logic, counterintuitive ideas. And that’s what he brings to this.’’

To the editor, the author’s inspired amateurism is a key to his appeal. “He’s someone sitting on a barstool, asking you to knock him off or be entertained,’’ Rumble said. “Or a combination of both, usually.’’

Breaking down the evidence James found all the education he needed as a schoolboy in the pages of the newspaper. In his book, he says he grew up “sort of in the middle of nowhere . . . obsessing endlessly about the nature of a world that lay outside my reach and experience, a little bit as if the universe was an unsolved crime and each newspaper was a clue.’’

He devoured the box scores, police blotters, advice columns, and comics pages. If he could draw, he said, he might have become a cartoonist. As it happened, he began breaking down ballgames and criminal evidence.

Just as he’s done with baseball statistics, he proposes new ways to evaluate crime stories. What if prosecutors were required to fulfill a 100-point scale, with, say, 35 points being assigned for a positive identification, 20 for a prior conviction on a similar charge, and so on?

He also devises a nerdy alphanumeric system for categorizing crime cases. The Beltway Snipers episode, for instance, was a KQN 7 — a Killer-on-the-loose mystery (Q for question mark) with a large Number of victims, registering a 7 on a media-coverage scale of 1 to 10.

The widespread notoriety of the Clutter murders in his home state — the basis for Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood’’ — had an obvious effect on the young man, though he downplays its significance.

“All crime stories start as regional stories,’’ he said. What fascinates him is how the whole country comes to fixate on a certain few of them.

Dismissing generalizations Making a recent appearance on “The Colbert Report’’ with the mock-pompous commentator Stephen Colbert, James, who claims to be “not that good with people,’’ was clearly amused by the host’s tongue-in-cheek questioning. Colbert asked about James’s twin passions for sports and violence. “Why not just follow football and kill two birds with one stone?’’ he said.

James, who has a dry sense of humor, regularly watches the program. “He tells you before you go on, ‘I play a guy who doesn’t know anything,’ ’’ he said.

In a sense, James himself plays a guy who doesn’t know anything — someone who purposefully dismisses received ideas in order to formulate his own. In his mind, the old baseball notion that pitching is three-quarters of the game has its equivalent in the old cops’ rule of thumb that almost all murders are committed by someone known to the victim: Both are unsubstantiated generalizations, and both drive him nuts.

“Popular Crime’’ grew out of a series of private essays James wrote on various cases over a period of decades.

“When you start reading things people write, and you know they’re wrong,’’ he said, “then it’s time to weigh in yourself.’’

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.

Crime stories
Lizzie Borden and Albert DeSalvo are featured in Bill James’s reexaminations of high-profile American murder cases.