So here’s the thing.
I don’t like true crime.
Except every time I read a True Crime book, I like it. So go figure.
No, I don’t like it.
I think the whole label thing is a distraction and unproductive. Good storytelling is when the page turns.
Save that thought.
So, Bill James is mostly a baseball writer. He’s famous for being a baseball writer. He popularized Sabermetrics, which changed (and possibly ruined) baseball. The reason he became famous while the other quants who had done much of the work didn’t is that the man writes like a dream. He can write as a storyteller, as an explainer and as a persuader. He could write about numbers and history. His writing also has a conversational style–speaking right to you, essentially through a literary fourth wall–and an energy, passion and joy that were infectious.
Those original Baseball Abstracts were unforgettable.
Today, James works for the Boston Red Sox. He has also indulged a new hobby…true crime.
So, I picked up The Man From the Train. Co-written by his daughter, the book is the story of a serial killer who brutally murdered entire families with the blunt end of an ax in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His nickname came from the fact that his crimes took place near trains…he would commit the murder and then hop on a train and skip town.
It’s a great story. The details…even after all this time… are just shocking and captivating. This is a truly evil individual. In fact, depending on how tolerant you are of counting murders that are similar but not identical to the straight MO, he could be the biggest serial killer in US History.
Even using only the strictest definition, he’s one of the worst.
The book promises more than just storytelling, though. It promises to solve the crime.
And a solution is proposed. It hardly solves the crime, because such a thing is not possible at this point. The proposed killer is a plausible solution–probably the most plausible–but a lot of suppositions and assumptions are supporting it and it’s just as likely that someone else no one ever heard of committed the crimes.
Let us not let that distract us, though. It actually doesn’t matter who really did it. The solution they found is impressive for the depth of research it took to find it and take it to its full conclusion.
Three things stand out.
First, the book is entertaining and educational. Who cares if it over-sells the conclusion a little?
Second, the book reveals something about human nature. Many of these murders occurred relatively near each other and they were sensational and made big news. Yet, whenever one did occur, the idea that someone hopped off the train and killed this family more or less at random and certainly without any previous connection was unthinkable to authorities EVEN THOUGH IT HAD HAPPENED RECENTLY ELSEWHERE…possibly because it is so dark, evil and unthinkable that it is less threatening to find other solutions. Because a killer like that is a mythological monster who puts everyone at risk.
And yet, just as the defense lawyer at Fyodor’s trial in The Brothers Karamazov says, there are these/this dead bodies and something has to be done about it. So, the second thing was that the reason the crimes weren’t solved as they were happening was that everyone dismissed the real answer out of hand.
Much like me and true crime.
The third thing is the effect of the second. If it wasn’t someone random, then it had to be someone with a connection. Which (since we know it isn’t true), requires the shoe-horning of reality into fantasy. It reminds me a little of the alternate theories that were created by astronomers during Copernican times to explain the obvious fact that the earth rotates around the sun–something everyone knew but couldn’t accept, for one reason or another.
Back in the Man From the Train, what happened in more than one community was a kind of mass hysteria where a town turned against a completely innocent man because that was the only solution available, once you eliminated the one that happened. This mass hysteria was so strong that it kept even professional investigators from noting what was happening in other communities. In one town, a whole human carnival came to visit, with a private investigator–a kind of sick Henry Hill type guy who maliciously prosecuted a man who was innocent in a patently obvious fashion.
The ability to mobilize a community behind fear and false facts should give us pause today. Also, those who believe that privatizing government services is the way to go should read this book and see how it worked when the US had effectively privatized detective work. (Those are bonuses).
So, with all that, who cares if the actual solution is more of a suggestion. The story is entertaining and grimly absorbing. The killer, whoever he was, was a cold, brutal killing genius. The insights into human nature make the book a learning experience as well.