Wednesday, 13 July 2011

everything is a lens


Bill James was on Slate's Hang Up & Listen last week. Bill James is the guy who changed baseball stats, and as a result sports stats, starting in the 1970s, trying to make them reflect important game outcomes rather than the often tangential ones which were traditionally measured. His new book is Popular Crime, which Hang Up & Listen's pundits said is not just about the history of popular crime. In fact, they said, it uses the story of sensational crimes and the public's reaction to them as a way to throw light on wider society.

Well, duh. If you look at anything which is part of the incredibly complicated warp of society, you can use it to look at what that society is like. This is what underpins the commodity monographs about cod, coffee and the rest. It's not an interesting observation, whatever you read on the back of the books making special claims for their particular subject.

Which doesn't mean that Popular Crime won't be an interesting book. I bet it will. Interesting in particular will be miscarriages of justice and perennial hysterias. I am not a devotee of true crime books, but my views on the Amanda Knox case are public record and I am currently reading Marek Kohn's excellent Dope Girls, which is great fun on the twenties, and which is basically about how western drug panics have been very similar in different places and times.

Anyway, what I meant to say was that Bill James talked about a book called, He Made It Safe to Murder: The Life of Moman Pruiett. You need hundreds of pounds to buy a copy. It's about an Oklahoman defence lawyer who defended 343 murder cases and secured 303 acquittals. Only one was sentenced to death, and that guy's sentence was commuted by the President.

It sounds a hell of a story, and was written by a young lawyer in the 1930s and shelved for libel reasons. When the lawyer, Howard K Berry, went to war, Pruiett himself cut a load of the stories and published it as an autobiography. Gosh.

This article refers to him as 'The Black Stud of the Washita' and 'the murderer’s messiah'. Another good bit:

At the height of his career, Moman loved to repeat (and disavow) this anecdote. After receiving a telegram from a man in a distant state ("I am charged with murder. Have $5000. Will you defend me?") Pruiett wired a reply: "Am leaving on next train with three eyewitnesses."

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