Perfect Victims: Slaughter, Sensation and Serial K

Written by Bill James

Review written by Judith Sullivan

Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.

Perfect Victims: Slaughter, Sensation and Serial K
Simon and Schuster
RRP: £12.99
Released: 7th July 2011

This book is a funny hybrid of a thing and never exactly what it seems to be. The   title at first suggests that it might cover crimes where the victim was somehow appropriate or pre-selected. The subtitle would promise lurid pulp fiction-ish detail.


Neither happens. Instead, James, a well-known Boston-based crime and sports writer, gives us a rambling but by no means unpleasant or poorly constructed mediation on crime in the US.  He covers a broad swathe indeed starting the account in the 19th century and bringing his case almost up to today.


This doorstop of a treatise is punctuated by infamous cases the kinds of case names that have entered the lexicon (Loeb & Leopold, In Cold Blood, JonBenet Ramsay). But this is not an attempt to shock just for the sake of shocking. Rather it is a witty and heartfelt survey of peculiarly American crimes, both sprees and one-off murders, political and personal vendettas resolved. James jumps in with opinions often, calling the 1970s Zodiac killings in California, the most interesting unsolved case. He admits having spent decades on Perfect Victims


One interesting factoid about this book – Early on he references a Yale Murder, linked to the Ivy League university in New Haven Connecticut in 1841. Shockingly, there is another one at the same college 140 years later, that of Bonnie Garland. What is missing from James’ book is of course, yet another killing of a young woman on that same campus, the murder of Annie Lee two years ago. The college is my alma mater and it is sobering to consider the link between the lofty aspirations of a respected university with the base, degrading  reality of homicide. Many readers like me will likely find one or two cases in this doorstop of a book that mark, move, disgust them in a particular way. James acknowledges his fellow true-crime writers and provides references in the text to other books, as well as an extensive bibliography, which should very useful for further research.


I am still not sure what James meant that the victims in his book are "perfect." I do know the author is a man of passion and scholarship. Eschewing the horrific details of individual crimes, he instead focuses on the stupidity of most killers and the girt and intelligence on law enforcement.


He does not let the reader off the hook: Commenting on what he labels the Popular Crime phenomenon (in which the public takes ownership of a series of events) he argues for this to be a force for good, rather than an exercise in prurience and voyeurism. He cites the example of the public helping track down common criminals and gang leaders but very briefly. He thus engages with the reader, allowing us to consider our own complicity in Popular Crime and our own responsibility in making the world safer.   



Highly recommended.

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