For a new reading generation as well as its loyal fans comes this reissued classic, a riveting and literary thriller about the basic drives that compel us to act in the name of good or evil. Based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924 – once considered the crime of the 20th century – Meyer Levin’s Compulsion presents both an incisive and nuanced psychological portrait of two young murderers.
Part of Chicago’s elite Jewish society, Judd Steiner and Artie Straus have it all: money, smarts and the world at their feet. Obsessed with Nietzsche’s idea of the superhuman, they decide to prove that they are above the laws of man by arbitrarily murdering a boy in their neighborhood — for the sheer sake of getting away with the crime.
Compulsion is narrated by Sid Silver, a budding journalist at the University of Chicago and a fictional surrogate for Meyer Levin, who was a classmate of Leopold and Loeb and reported on their trial himself; like Sid, Levin became enmeshed in the case while covering it. Early on, a pair of Judd’s horn-rimmed eyeglasses is found at the scene of the crime. Authorities slowly begin to unveil other pieces of evidence that suggest the young men’s guilt. When their respective alibis collapse, Artie and Judd each confess. Fearing an anti-Semitic backlash and anxious to be viewed first and foremost as Americans, the Jewish community in Chicago demands steadfastly that justice be served.
Desperate, the Straus and Steiner families seek the counsel of the famed Jonathan Wilk, who is based on his real-life counterpart Clarence Darrow. Wilk hires a slew of psychoanalysts and begins to construct a first-of-its-kind defense: that Artie and Judd are not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Here, too, the novel’s documentary qualities shine as the narrative shifts into a deftly paced courtroom drama where the legal and psychiatric delineations of insanity — and even more controversially for its time, homosexuality — are introduced.
Heartbreaking as well as gripping, Compulsion is written with a tense and penetrating force that led the Los Angeles Times to call Levin “the most significant Jewish writer of his times.”
“Before Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, before Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, there was Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, a docu-novel about the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case in the 1920s. If only for its rightful place in American literary history, Compulsion is worth reprinting. But it is also valuable because of its author’s novelistic gifts—a convincing portrait of two brilliant psychopaths, a narrative capacity for a spellbinding tale, an authentic depiction of the 1920s Chicago moral and political landscape. Compulsion is a credible portrait of an era, and an early example of an infamous crime turned into compelling fiction.”—Alan Lelchuk, author of American Mischief
“Though Truman Capote claimed to have invented a new literary genre with In Cold Blood—a form he called the ‘nonfiction novel’—that distinction truly belongs to Meyer Levin. For nearly a century now, the Leopold and Loeb case has maintained a firm hold on the popular imagination, generating histories, movies, stage dramas, even musicals and comic books. Of this seemingly endless stream of retellings, Levin’s lightly fictionalized masterpiece—so true to reality that Leopold himself famously sued the author—remains the most gripping, psychologically penetrating, and purely readable account of one of America’s most sensational crimes.” —Harold Schechter, author of The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation
“Compulsion is a lost star in the pantheon of America’s golden age of Jewish fiction; its re-release should be welcomed by all. Despite prejudices and misconceptions about homosexuality that are inseparable from the time in which the story is set (and in which it was written), Levin brilliantly dissects the human heart in this classic of psychological realism – a remarkably sympathetic portrait years ahead of its time. Its call for mercy instead of punishment, compassion instead of retribution, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read.”—Michael Lavigne, author of Not Me
Nothing ever ends, and if we retrace every link in causation, it seems there is nowhere a beginning. But there was a day on which this story began to be known to the world. On that day Judd Steiner, slipping into class late, took a back seat for McKinnon’s lecture in the development of law. Judd sat alone in the rear row, raised a step above the others, and this elevation fitted his inward sense of being beyond all of them.
There was still, from yesterday, a quivering elation, as when you catch your balance on a pitching deck. Not that he had ever for a moment felt in danger of being out of control. No. In the moment of the deed itself, he had been a bit shaken. Artie had been superb.
Judd only wished Artie were here with him now, so they could share a quick wink, listening to McKinnon’s platitudes.
McKinnon was being what the fellows thought was brilliant. He was producing one of his sweeping summaries, casting his eye over the entire structure of the law.
From the early and primitive Hebrew concept of an eye for an eye, McKinnon said dryly, “Rather bloodthirsty, these Semitic tribes”—from that early concept to our law of today, was there really a great advance? Instead of an eye, it was the value of an eye, the value of a tooth, the value of a life, that was now exacted from the criminal. And in some cases the ancient primitive code remained intact, a life for a life.
Many of the fellows were making notes—especially those who were taking the Harvard Law entrance tomorrow. Directly in front of Judd, Milt Lewis was feverishly putting it all down, the hairs standing disgustingly on his fleshy, bent neck.
As the professor talked, Judd’s pen too became busy in his notebook. Over and over he drew a hawk. The hawk was streaking down, talons open . . . Where was Artie? Judd had passed Artie’s house, and driven past the frat, and he had looked around on campus. Surely nothing had gone wrong. Artie was purposely putting him on pins and needles . . . Judd drew a vulture. The page filled; he turned it and drew a huge, elaborate cross, with an unfurled inscription. In Sanskrit, he wrote, “In Memoriam.” At the base of the cross, in elaborate Old English capitals, he drew his initials: J.S.
Then he glanced through the mullioned window. Artie might pass. In any case, Artie had better be on hand after the ten o’clock, as they had agreed. They had everything still to do.
McKinnon had come to a pause; he had lifted up the entire structure of human law and was holding it aloft for them to admire, perhaps not so much the structure itself as his Atlas feat in lifting it. Judd could not help, now, tickling the outstretched arm.
“But granted that the law applies to the ordinary person in society,” Judd said, “how would it apply in the case of the superman? The concept of an Übermensch in itself means that he must be above ordinary society. If he abided by ordinary laws he could never produce the actions that might in the end prove of the greatest benefit to humanity—not that even benefit to humanity should be a criterion.”
McKinnon smiled patronizingly. “By a superman I suppose you mean a powerful historical personality like Napoleon.”
Judd was going to interrupt, to debate Napoleon, for wasn’t Napoleon’s failure a proof per se that he was not a true superman? But Milt Lewis, always eager to hitch on to someone else’s idea, had filled in for McKinnon. “Didn’t many of the great American pioneers and industrialists consider themselves above the law?”
“Not exactly,” said McKinnon. “Often such a powerful figure, a conqueror or a revolutionist, considered that he was bringing law to the lawless, or adapting old laws to newer human ways. But always you will find such persons at pains to justify their actions in terms of law, rather than by pretending to be above the law.” And in the grand sweep of history, he pointed out, even these tremendous and commanding personalities were incorporated, for the general concept of right and wrong, of crime and punishment, remained organic with the social order, resisting individualistic innovations.
“In fact that’s a case in point—Crime and Punishment. The hero considered himself a kind of superman, and yet he broke down and yielded to the law,” parroted Milt Lewis, always ready to switch sides.
“But that’s no superman! That’s not the conception!” Judd cried. What was Raskolnikov after all but a weak sentimentalist, full of moral and religious drivel? What was his crime but a petty attempt at theft, motivated by abysmal poverty? Where was the superman conception? Raskolnikov’s was only a crime with a motive—his need for money. All he had done was to rationalize the murder by declaring that his need was greater than that of the miserly old female pawnbroker’s. To be above, beyond mundane conception, a crime had to be without need, without any of the emotional human drives of lust, hatred, greed. It had to be like some force beyond the reach of gravity itself. Then it became a pure action, the action of an absolutely free being—a superman.
Too dense to grasp a concept, they all began gabbling: How could there be such a person? . . . They didn’t get the concept at all; the whole idea was beyond them. Judd almost found himself yelling out the proof to them—“Look at Artie! Look at me!” But instead, he relished the situation inwardly. This was the true enjoyment. To see things from another area of knowledge, from a fourth dimension which none of them could enter.
“Well, it is an interesting speculation,” McKinnon was saying with his tight little smile; the hour was over. “As you put it, Steiner, it is a pure concept, something in the abstract. However”—he strove for his summarizing line—“a society of supermen would undoubtedly in turn evolve its own laws.”
“Superlaws!” Milt Lewis hawed.
In the corridor, Judd tried to dodge away from Lewis. He had almost got out of the Law building when he felt the thick paw on his arm. Always physically touchy, Judd overreacted, wrenching away.
“Say, Junior, how about a little session, going over those notes?” Milton said.
“I never cram before an exam,” Judd stated. “My system is to go out and dissipate.”
Milton made some inane remark about geniuses.
Halfway across to Sleepy Hollow, Judd saw Artie—Artie stretched on his elbow on the grass amidst a group of co-eds, who squatted with their legs folded under them. Myra was there and a stupid new little girl, Dorothea, who had a crush on Artie . . . Judd felt a surge of envy amounting almost to hatred. Judd raised his wrist, pointedly looking at his watch. Artie only rolled over, patting the ground for Judd to squat. This Dorothea was reading aloud from Jurgen, and all of them had on such knowing smirks, they tittered each time her pink tongue lingered on a reference to Jurgen’s sturdy “staff,” relishing the double meaning.
It was one of those moments when Artie looked so golden, so perfect, stretched in his powder-blue pullover, that Judd had an urge in front of all of them to call him Dorian. But he again restrained himself, saying, “Hey, Artie, we’re late.”
“Late for what?” Dorothea asked vapidly.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Artie said, rising to a sitting position.
Judd nearly giggled. If they knew!
“Don’t forget your staff!” Dorothea remarked daringly, rolling her eyes from her Jurgen to a silver Eversharp that had dropped from Artie’s jacket on to the grass.
“Thought you girls might want to use it,” Artie said, sending them all into a panic, even Myra smiling. Then Artie was coming along with him to the car. But that silly Dorothea jumped up, smoothing her swishing pleats, and came hurrying after them, calling to ask which way were they going . . .
“This is man stuff.” Artie gave her his dazzling grin, and they left her standing there, holding her Jurgen to her chest.
“Some little pest!” Artie lighted a cigarette, exhaled. Judd didn’t inquire how Artie felt. In a sense they were like two medical experimenters who have injected themselves with an untried drug. In himself, it had perhaps produced a slight quickening, but he was holding it well, Judd was sure. In Artie, there was not the slightest sign of an effect. But then, had not Artie secretly tried a dose once or twice before?
“Got the letters?” Artie asked in his voice of snappy action.
Judd tapped the pocket of his sports jacket. He had placed one letter on each side, to avoid any mistake. In the right-hand pocket was the letter telling the victim’s father to go to Hartmann’s Drugstore and wait for a telephone call. In the left-hand pocket was the final letter that would tell him where to drop the ransom. Their job now was to prepare the treasure hunt, leading the father from place to place as he picked up these letters.
“You should have seen me shake your friend Milt Lewis,” Judd said. “He wanted to come over tonight and study for the exam.”
“That jackass would be a perfect alibi!” Artie said. “You should have let him.”
“I thought we’d have something better to do.” Judd glanced at Artie, and they both snickered. Then Artie told him to take Ellis Avenue.
The Kessler house was only a block out of their way. Judd would not have driven past that house; in fact, he would have gone out of his way to avoid it. But it was in just such boldness that Artie had it all over him.
As they neared the big yellow brick-and-timber residence, Artie leaned halfway out of the car to get a good look. By now their first letter, the special delivery demanding the ransom, had surely arrived.
The street looked normal. You’d never imagine anything unusual had happened to anyone in that house. Thus, the flash idea came to Judd that fourth-dimensional activities could be taking place within and through all human activity, and leaving no trace.
Even as they coasted slowly past, the Kesslers’ limousine turned the corner and pulled into the driveway. “Stop! Hold it!” Artie snapped, but Judd drove on, swearing under his breath, “You gone daffy!”
Artie squirmed around on the seat so he could watch behind. Mr. Kessler got hurriedly out of the limousine—he was carrying a swelling brief case, Artie glowingly declared—and right after him came a tall man whose head angled forward. Artie recognized him—old Judge Wagner—guessed he was the Kesslers’ family lawyer.
“He’s just been to the bank and got the money!” Artie bounced around, laughing, and squeezed Judd’s knee. “He’s got Judge Wagner with him. Hey, I forgot to tell you, Jocko. Mums told me this morning. The two of them were tearing around the neighborhood last night looking for Paulie. They even came to our tennis court—wanted to know if the kid had been playing with Billy!” Billy was Artie’s little brother, of the same age as the boy they had kidnapped. “Old man Kessler and the old Judge even dragged out Fathands Weismiller!” That was the gym teacher at the Twain School. “They had him bust into the building with them. I think Fats crawled through the window!” Artie leaned back and laughed at the image. “They thought maybe the kid got locked in taking a leak. I told Mums my theory is, Paulie’s run away from home.”
Judd felt slightly piqued that Artie had not come over, first thing in the morning, to share all this with him. “Mums was in a stew this morning,” Artie said. “She was even worried if she should send dear little Billums off to school!”
They had by now reached Judd’s house, an ornate, gabled mansion on Greenwood Street. But instead of stopping, Judd drove on a block to where they had last night, after the deed, parked the rented Willys.
“Every mamma with a brat in Twain is a-twitter.” Artie laughed.
But this disturbed Judd. Surely all the worried mothers would be telephoning the Kesslers. “They’ll keep the phone line busy,” he pointed out.
It was a detail they had only partly foreseen. For to carry out their carefully timed ransom schedule, the Kessler line had to be open for their call. Indeed, their special-delivery letter had instructed Charles Kessler to keep his line unused.
“Ishkabibble,” said Artie.
It was an expression Judd hated. He had wanted this to be a perfect day between them. Sometimes—even in a big thing like this—Artie could suddenly act as if he didn’t care a damn.
But as Judd pulled behind the Willys, Artie glanced up and down the street in his professional way. He was in the game again.
They approached the rented car. It stood in front of a nondescript apartment house, for this block was already outside the exclusive Hyde Park area of mansions. How anonymous, how perfectly innocent the car looked! Gratification arose in Judd at the correctness of their planning. The rented car, the fake identities, were masterful ideas. And just as this car, this shell of metal that contained their deed of yesterday, had been left a totally unaltered entity by the deed, so was the deed meaningless within themselves.
“You want to drive, Mr. Singer?” Judd used the alias, giving Artie a you-first-my-dear-Gaston bow while opening the door. But as he took hold of the door handle, Judd noticed a few small, dark blotches. No, they were surely from something else. But suppose on the wildest chance the car were discovered and under chemical analysis the spots proved . . . ? Last night, in the dark, the washing they had given the automobile, using Artie’s garden hose, had been altogether hasty.
Conquering the sickening repugnance that blood always raised in him, Judd looked into the rear of the car. There were stains on the floor.
“Aw, it could be any kind of crap. Every car is dirty,” Artie said.
“They’re brownish.” Judd felt suddenly depressed.
“All right, we’ll wash it out!” Artie jumped behind the wheel, heading for Judd’s driveway. Judd hesitated; but it was the noon hour, and Emil would be upstairs at lunch. Anyway, what he did was none of the chauffeur’s business.
Artie pulled the Willys up to the garage entrance. Judd glanced at the house. Huge, silent, with most of the shades drawn, the way his father insisted since his mother had died, it had an unoccupied air.
Artie had seized a pail and was running water into it. The maid came out of the house to ask if Cook should fix lunch for the two of them.
Judd felt spied on. “We’re busy,” he said, keeping his voice polite. “Thanks, but never mind. We’ll pick up a sandwich downtown.”
“I’ll just put some cold chicken on the table.” And she gave him that devoted smile of a female who knows better than men what men want.
Artie sloshed the pail of water on to the rear floorboards. Taking a rag, Judd began to rub the spots around the door handle. How could they ever have got there? The image from yesterday, the jet of blood, the whole dreadful mess, intruded for an instant, but he ruled it out from his mind. It was instantly supplanted by an image of himself as a child watching a doctor with a syringe starting to take blood from his mother’s arm, and a swooning sick feeling echoed up in him. Judd ruled it all out, out from his mind. He had full control; he could master his emotions completely. He held his mind blank, like breath shut off.
Artie was swearing—the bloody crap wouldn’t wash out—and at that moment Emil came down the garage stairs, still chewing on something. “Can I help you boys?” he said through his food.
“No. Never mind. We’re just cleaning up a car I borrowed,” Artie said, pulling his head out of the tonneau. “Boy, some party! I guess we kind of messed it up.”
“What are you using, only plain water?” Emil asked, coming close and looking. “You could use some Gold Dust.”
“It’s wine spots. We spilled some Dago red,” Artie said, laughing.
Emil turned to fetch a box of Gold Dust. “Let me do it for you.”
“No, this is good enough,” Judd said. “It’s nothing. Don’t let us interrupt your lunch.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Emil. But finally the stupid Swede seemed to get the idea; he started back upstairs. Yet he paused to ask if Judd’s Stutz was running all right today, if the squeak that Judd had complained about when he left it in the garage yesterday was gone. “I put a little oil on the brake,” Emil said. “Not too much.”
“It’s fine now—fine, thanks,” Judd said. And to Artie: “Let’s go.”
Artie took the wheel and backed out with a roar. “Christ, you never could back a car! Watch out!” Judd complained.
They drove to Vincennes. The corner they had selected for the first message relay was a large vacant lot at 39th and Vincennes. At the curb stood one of Chicago’s metal refuse boxes, about the size of a hope chest, painted dark green. On one side, stenciled in white, were the words, Help Keep The City Clean.
They got out. Judd drew the letter from his pocket. There were few people on the street, and anyone observing them might think they were only throwing some junk into the box.
Judd lifted the lid. He had brought along a small roll of gummed stationery tape, and now he tried to tape the letter to the underside of the lid. The tape didn’t stick. “Hold the damn lid!” he snapped at Artie.
“That junk will never hold,” Artie criticized. “Jesus, I can’t leave a single thing to you! Where’s the adhesive, that roll of adhesive!”
It was a roll Judd had taken from the bathroom yesterday, to wind around the chisel blade, the way Artie said, so the wooden end could be used as a club. “You told me to use the whole roll, to make it thick.”
“We’ve got time to drive over and buy some.”
“Hell with it!” Artie cried. He let the lid drop, nearly catching Judd’s hand. He snatched the envelope from Judd. “We’ll leave out this stop.”
“Then how’ll he know where to go next?” Judd objected.
“When we phone him at home,” Artie snapped, “instead of sending him to this box we send him straight to Hartmann’s Drugstore for the next instruction. That’s all this crappy letter tells him to do anyway.”
“We can’t make any last-minute changes—everything will get all balled up!” Judd felt suddenly panicky. The spots on the car had been dismaying. Now he was becoming depressed.
This Help Keep the City Clean box had seemed to give the entire adventure the proper sardonic flavor, this garbage box of life. The idea had been his own contribution, too. It had come to him a few months ago during one of their sessions. How to make the ransom collection foolproof had been the problem.
Artie, half tight, had got off the subject, telling about some asinine frat party with a new stunt, a “treasure hunt” in which kids were sent all over town to the craziest places, and in each place they picked up a clue to where they had to go next.
Suddenly Judd had seen it. An actual treasure hunt in reverse! The father chasing from one place to another for his instructions to deliver the ransom! And in the same instant, as the idea itself came to him, Judd had visualized the refuse box. First stop! A portly man, he had imagined him, because during that time they had figured Danny Richman as the victim, and Danny’s father—that stuffed shirt, who never opened his mouth except to make a speech full of noble precepts, Polonius in person, even worse than Judd’s own old man, if possible—Danny’s father was it!
Artie had loved the idea. They could just see Richman père waddling toward the Help Keep the City Clean box, bending his carcass, pulling up the lid, putting on his pince-nez to read the instructions!
Artie had been wonderful that night, planning all sorts of mad surprises for the father. “Hey, how about he pulls up the lid—we have a jack-in-the-box, a great big jock that jumps up at him!”
Judd improved on it. They could rig up a spring, so that when the box was opened it squeezed a bulb and—right in the face!—a fountain!
But even as Artie had gone on, with more and more ghoulish ideas, another image had crowded into Judd’s mind. He had seen the box as the place for the body itself. He had no thought of it as something dead. He had merely visualized the shape, curled up, fitting inside snugly. Of course he had dismissed the image as impractical. In a street box like this, nothing could remain hidden for more than a few hours; someone would come along and open the lid. And afterwards, Judd had thought of the real place, the perfect receptacle for the body. Nevertheless, more than once the image had returned, the curled boy in the box.
“C’mon!” Artie was already in the car. He was tearing up the letter that should have been in the box, letting bits of it fall to the street.
“Hey! For crissake!” Judd grabbed for his arm. Artie started the car with a jolt and let the bits of paper flutter out a few at a time from his hand, laughing goadingly.
He drove to the main I.C. station at Twelfth Street. There the other letter, containing their final instructions, had to be placed in a certain spot on a certain train.
Based on the Leopold and Loeb murder of Bobbie Franks, the reprint of the 1956 true crime novelization remains a powerful dramatization that looks closely at why they did it and the impact of the cold-blooded murder on families and communities years afterward….Over nine decades since the actual murder and almost sixty years since the original book and its subsequent movie were released, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion still haunts its audience.
“When I was growing up in New York in the 1950s, there was no one who did not know who Leopold and Loeb were — and there was no one who did not know ‘Compulsion,’ Meyer Levin’s roman à clef of the case.”
Read Jerome A. Chanes’s full article for The Forward.
Share This:emailFacebookTwitterLinkedinGoogle+“But the imaginative leaps made by the artist who wrote ‘Compulsion’ are leagues beyond mere reportage, including sequences related from within the consciousness of the leading players. ‘Compulsion’ is smartly structured to maximize suspense, and the book’s title is descriptive of the urge a reader feels to keep turning pages. The world of the […]
“The details of the case, Levin’s skill in creating suspense, and his ability to relate this tale to the important events of the 20th century make this a unique and unforgettable read.”
Read the full review by Anne Corey for Reviewing the Evidence here.
“Paying close attention to historical detail, ‘Compulsion’ is a deftly crafted novel that documents author Meyer Levin as a particularly gifted storyteller that will keep his readers total engaged from beginning to end.”
“‘Compulsion’ is one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read. It will bring to mind classic Russian psychological novels; it was a groundbreaking novel in 1956 and it stands up superbly today.”
“Leopold and Loeb seemed to present modernity with its own deformed image. In a strange way, their single crime encapsulates the moral anarchy that was responsible for so many millions of deaths, in war and revolution and Holocaust, during the 20th century. As in a laboratory experiment, they demonstrated on a small scale the forces that, unleashed, could destroy the world. Meyer Levin makes this suggestion repeatedly in Compulsion, his fascinating 1956 novel about the Leopold and Loeb case, which has just been reissued by the enterprising new Jewish publisher Fig Tree Books.”
“Though written nearly sixty years ago, Compulsion is as timely and poignant a crime story as anything you’re likely to find in contemporary literature. Not only did Levin show a fascination for the human mind (and our need to explore it), but also an awareness of issues such as self-identity and sexuality. Further, he had a keen understanding of how the proliferation of media and public sentiment could influence justice. That these are all topics that continue to inspire debate is the proof that he was ahead of his time—and that his work is ageless …”
Read the full review by John Valeri for the Hartford Books Examiner.
“The horrific murder in 1924 of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb inspired this acclaimed roman à clef, originally published in 1956.”
Read the rest of the review on the Publishers Weekly website.
The following is the full text of Marcia Clark’s Foreword.
Before In Cold Blood, before The Executioner’s Song, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion was the standard-bearer for what we think of as the nonfiction novel. I was eight years old when I read it for the first time. I’d found the paperback, already yellowed with age, on a nightstand. Though I could not possibly grasp the depth of the storytelling or recognize the beauty of the prose, the experience proved to be indelible. The story haunted me from that day forward. Reading it again now, I marvel anew at Levin’s accomplishment, and the utterly fascinating and profoundly timeless aspects of the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
To fill in those who are not crime buffs, Compulsion tells the true story of two sons of multimillionaire families who, back in 1924 (the novel was written in 1956), when they were nineteen and eighteen years old, respectively, kidnaped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy simply (ostensibly) for the thrill of it all, to prove that they could. The victim, Robert Franks, was the son of an equally wealthy family who lived in the community. Leopold and Loeb deliberately set the ransom low, at ten thousand dollars, because they knew the father would easily be able to pay it.
Though these two highly intelligent young men—one (Loeb) an obsessive reader of true-crime detective stories—planned the crime for the better part of a year, they made so many glaring mistakes in covering their tracks that some have hypothesized that they wanted to get caught. They rented the car in which they murdered their victim yet failed to wash down all the blood. They parked the car near Leopold’s house, where the family chauffeur spotted it. They typed the ransom note on Leopold’s portable typewriter, which was easily identified by college schoolmates. And Leopold lost his glasses very close to where the body was found.
Despite these gaffes, the police continued to look everywhere but at the true culprits, resisting the obvious logical conclusion to the bitter end. Because the last people they—or anyone else—were inclined to suspect were the two sons of well-heeled, well-respected South Side Chicago families.
The story held a nation in thrall back in 1924, and it continues to captivate even today. Other duos have committed more prolific crimes since then—Lyle and Eric Menendez, who slaughtered their parents; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School shooters. But none continues to fascinate in quite the same way as Leopold and Loeb.
I believe that the lasting impact stems from the fact that, unlike in most other crimes, the motivation did not fall into any of the usual categories. Leopold and Loeb were not serial killers and this was not a crime of passion, greed, or revenge.
The moment the teenagers were arrested and charged with the murder, this atypicality became the key issue in the case. There was no question of guilt: both of the boys confessed, and the evidence against them was overwhelming. Their lawyers, recognizing that the best they could hope for was to avoid the death penalty, had Leopold and Loeb enter guilty pleas and focused on proving that the boys suffered psychological problems serious enough to require that their lives be spared. And so both sides raced to hire the best, most respected “alienists”—as psychiatrists were then called—to find the explanation for the kidnaping and murder of Robert Franks.
The prosecution’s experts downplayed any evidence of mental disturbance and claimed the motive was largely financial. That was most certainly not true. With rich allowances and indulgent families, the boys lacked for nothing. Though they sent a ransom note demanding ten thousand dollars, these killers were heirs to fortunes thousands of times greater than the ransom. And in truth, they never had any intention of returning the victim to his family. For these boys, the ransom was a way to exert power over the victim’s family. The money was proof of their superiority, it was not the motive.
Leopold and Loeb claimed they committed their crime as an intellectual exercise, to prove that they were the living embodiment of the “Übermensch,” the superman described by Friedrich Nietzsche—so superior to the “herd” that ordinary laws did not apply to them. But that motive, as Meyer Levin shows us in this mesmerizing novel, was not the real one either. And it is Levin’s insightful account that provides some of the real and far more complex reasons for the crime. The exploration of what the true motivations might have been is what drives the narrative and gives us some understanding of the complex enigma of the damaged, twisted psyches that provoked these two young men to commit this crime.
There could have been no better person to write this book. Meyer Levin’s masterful skill as a writer and profound psychological insight into the characters of Nathan Leopold (transformed in the novel into Judd Steiner) and Richard Loeb (fictionalized as Artie Straus) produced a powerful, nuanced, and impressively credible depiction of two equally—but differently—disturbed minds.
It can be a failing in nonfiction novels for the writer, in the course of the research, to develop a kinship with the defendant that leads to a sentimental, romanticized picture. Not so here. At no point does Meyer Levin attempt to rationalize or justify the “poor little rich boys.” Rather, the author draws heavily on the detailed psychological testimony and reportage—familiar to him through his own experience as a journalist covering the case—to give us an unflinching portrait of the killers’ inner lives. When the author, through the voice of his alter ego, cub reporter Sid Silver, says he must imagine certain scenes or thoughts he could not personally witness, he is not merely taking artistic license to justify dramatic moments. Those scenes, those “imaginings,” are rather careful extrapolations based on actual expert psychiatric testimony.
For example, when Sid, the reporter, speaks of Judd’s homosexual attraction to Artie, and his fantasies of being a branded slave to Artie, his king, that is not just the author’s indulgence in artistic license. Those passages are based on the expert testimony in the case, which recounted statements made by both Leopold and Loeb during their psychiatric examinations. This kind of credibility, depth, and accuracy of insight is one of the many outstanding features of Compulsion.
But the most fascinating aspect of this story is the folie à deux that allowed this crime to happen in the first place. Alone, neither Leopold nor Loeb would likely have committed this murder. Even Loeb—who, it would be discovered, might have killed others before this crime, and who fits most clearly the present-day definition of a sociopath—would not have conceived of a crime as complex or bizarre without Leopold’s twisted input. And Leopold, though a darkly tortured soul, almost certainly would never have committed any crime at all—let alone murder—had he not met Loeb. This rare complementary coupling of damaged psyches that resulted in the commission of an atrocity neither one would likely have committed alone is captured beautifully by Meyer Levin.
In the second half of the book, which is devoted to the trial, the author distinguishes himself with his ability to draw courtroom scenes that are both dramatic and realistic. Ordinarily, courtroom scenes, in both fiction and nonfiction, are either irritatingly inaccurate or incredibly dull. These scenes can be exciting on the screen—and occasionally, though not often, in real life—but generally not on the page. As a consequence, authors too often take artistic license, sacrificing all semblance of credibility in the service of drama.
However, in Compulsion, the courtroom scenes are both riveting and unfailingly authentic. The bruising clashes of personality between Jonathan Wilk—the fictional name given to the legendary Clarence Darrow, who represented Leopold and Loeb (and later defended John Scopes in the Scopes “Monkey Trial”), the prosecutor, and the judge are so vivid, so real, that at times I felt as though I were listening to them arguing, rather than reading the words. And the author does a brilliant job of taking us behind the curtain to show the maneuvering and strategizing that began from the moment the defendants were charged.
This brings me to another aspect of Compulsion that explains its ongoing importance and makes it so much more than just an interesting crime story or period piece. Though this trial took place in 1924, the book raises issues pertaining to society and our justice system—such as popular biases, groupthink, and the inherent, perhaps unfixable, flaws in our legal system—that are as much in evidence today as they were back then.
Today, every practicing trial lawyer knows that the media holds sway over the court of public opinion. And the court of public opinion influences every aspect of the case. It affects how the lawyers strategize, how the judge rules, how the witnesses testify (or refuse to), and how the jury decides.
Compulsion shows us that this was every bit as true in 1924 as it is today. Meyer Levin graphically depicts how the pretrial publicity so tainted public opinion that it was a virtual certainty that any jury would vote to put the defendants to death. And so the lawyers went to great—and creative—lengths to have the case tried by a judge instead of a jury. But even that move did not keep public sentiment from infecting the proceedings. In the most shocking moment of the entire trial, the prosecutor effectively threatened the judge with mob reprisal if he dared to spare the defendants’ lives. For me, that moment, rendered in breathtakingly vivid detail, encapsulates the corrupting force of media coverage that to this day plagues our system of justice. In this way as in so many others, Compulsion raises profound issues that resonate today and will continue to do so for many years to come.
The following is the full text of Gabriel Levin’s new Introduction for Compulsion.
Turning fifty in 1955, the same year in which he completed Compulsion, my father, in the voice of the novel’s narrator, Sid Silver, would speak in the preface of having reached “that strange assessment point.” He was the same age, in effect, as Nathan Leopold, otherwise known as Judd Steiner in his novelized account of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” of fourteen-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago. Three decades had passed since he had attended the University of Chicago, his own undergraduate years overlapping with those of Leopold and Loeb, where he had reported on the sensational trial as a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News. In the intervening years he had written half a dozen novels, including his sweeping coming-of-age novel The Old Bunch, published in 1937, and The Citizens, which described the police shooting of ten steel-mill strikers from multiple points of view. Both novels were firmly set in the robust realist tradition of Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. But he had as well performed as a puppeteer, reported from Spain during the Spanish Civil War, worked as a film critic for Esquire, translated from the Yiddish a selection of classic Hassidic tales, written a screenplay, and filmed, against all odds, the illegal immigration across Europe of Jewish Holocaust survivors to the shores of Palestine. He had married, divorced, and remarried shortly after the end of World War II and in the late forties settled in Paris where he would work on his autobiography, In Search, which apart from describing growing up in the bloody Nineteenth Ward of Chicago and early jaunts to Europe and Palestine, dealt at length with his harrowing experiences entering the death camps as a war correspondent ahead of the American troops. In 1951, a year after he completed In Search, we would move back to the States, taking up residence in New York City, where soon thereafter my father began working on Compulsion.
It may not be exaggerated to say that my father belonged to a generation of writers who witnessed and drew upon the major, cataclysmic events of their times. One has only to think of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, John Hersey, William Golding, the younger William Styron, and Norman Mailer. So too Compulsion, though on the surface a psychological thriller, should be read as well as an extended meditation on the darker side of humanity in the wake of the Holocaust, the latter never quite loosening its hold on my father’s imagination (Compulsion was soon followed by Eva, a first-person novelized true account of one woman’s flight from the Nazis, capture, and survival in Auschwitz). Might not the incomprehensible barbarity of the war years be read backward, isolated, dissected—as in a laboratory experiment—analyzed, and encapsulated in the criminal actions of these two boys who had everything—wealth, brains, promise—and who nevertheless plotted and executed a gratuitous, random act of extreme violence?
That the crime itself weighed heavily on my father’s conscience for years is evident in his treatment of Leopold and Loeb in The Old Bunch, where several of the novel’s young protagonists, growing up in the poor Jewish West Side, discuss the murder with a mixture of disgust and fascination; the murderers, as well as the victim, were Jewish, but this did not blur the fact that in hailing from the affluent South Side of Chicago, Leopold and Loeb were perceived as belonging to a culturally alien, unapproachable class of Jews in light of their wealth and assimilated ways. Even in Chicago of the twenties the old-country distinctions between German and Eastern Jewry were preserved. Similar issues of identity are treated in In Search, written five years before Compulsion, though here my father will admit to a second crucial factor in his fascination with the case: namely his own complex, partial identification with the murderers. This had largely to do with their shared intellectual precociousness. Both my father and Leopold and Loeb had been admitted to the University of Chicago at the age of fourteen. “The murder stood before me as a personal lesson in morality, for both criminals were precocious students at the University of Chicago, like myself, and of my own age…But it was inevitable that their ‘crime of decadence’ should appear to me as a symbol. I, the west-side boy, had turned my precocious energy into accomplishment; they, the rich south siders, turned the same qualities toward destruction.” And a little further down my father confesses, “In a confused and awed way, and in the momentary fashionableness of ‘lust for experience,’ I felt that I understood them, that I, particularly, being a young intellectual Jew, had a kinship with them.”
It is this wary kinship that would provide my father with the analytic and sympathetic tools in writing Compulsion and in particular in entering the mind of Judd Steiner, Artie Straus’s brilliant yet lonely, repressed, and socially awkward accomplice. Artie is all bluff, a wiseass. But we are made to feel for Judd, his conceitedness barely hiding his sexual insecurity and isolation in the world. And the primary conduit in our understanding of Judd is Ruth, cub reporter Sid Silver’s girl, who is drawn to Judd in the course of the first part of the novel, before the perpetrators of the crime are caught. That she is engaged in a flirtatious but searching relationship with Judd even as her boyfriend’s sleuthing will eventually lead to Judd and Artie’s arrest, is a particularly effective, film noir twist to the novel and acts as a source of slow-building suspense and revelation—one might almost say redemption—as Judd’s self-tormented psyche is laid bare. Might his welter of feelings toward Ruth, bordering on love, override and thwart Artie’s demonic, homoerotic hold on him? The crime has by now been committed, but will Judd’s soul be saved by virtue of his sudden, dimly acknowledged vulnerability and yearning for human affection?
But the very poignancy of the scenes between Ruth and Judd is further augmented by Sid Silver himself, my father’s fictionalized alter ego, who every so often will remind the reader that certain events described in retrospect are pure conjecture on his part. Sid Silver is painfully aware that in reconstructing the scenes between Ruth and Judd, he is also retracing the gradual unraveling of his own youthful first love: “So I torment myself with their little scene, with the certainty that while sophisticated words poured out, their fingers touched, and they reacted like any two kids made goofy at the contact; I imagine them dancing together, and smiling in intimate joy. I see them later in the car, sitting mooning by the lake, and Judd not even trying to pull her heavily to him, perhaps only their hands clasped on the seat between them.” Compulsion is then as much a story of thwarted love recalled in midlife, “that strange assessment point,” as it is a crime novel, and the rueful scene above is one of the many vignettes in which my father surpasses the limits of the thriller or crime genre by virtue of his own authorial mastery, his own sleights of hand lending credence to the novel’s shifting sense of narrated time and perspective; and it is undoubtedly here, in the novel’s underlying structure, that Compulsion rings true to the tenor of the self-reflective modern, twentieth-century novel, even as its diction and unadorned style remain loyal to a certain hardboiled realism of once-familiar gritty, cigar-smoke-filled newspaper rooms and overheated courthouses.
When Judd and Artie are finally apprehended, midpoint into the novel, we witness a wrenching moment of recognition, or rather of double recognition: Ruth will be shocked, confused, overtaken by revulsion and pity for Judd in whom she had sensed all along a deep hurt, “some inescapable world sorrow,” and, confronted by Sid’s news, she blurts out, “‘He did awaken some kind of love in me. Perhaps it was only pity. I knew he was suffering from something terrible he couldn’t tell me. He hides everything in himself. Perhaps’—her voice became small, choked—‘perhaps that’s even what made him do it.’” Sid, on his part, in imparting the news to his girlfriend, realizes that his own obsessive involvement as a reporter in the chase after the murderers has ruined his relationship with Ruth: “We stood near each other, we almost leaned to kiss, but then only grasped hands, and I knew it was gone.”
And so the concluding scenes of Book I, “The Crime of the Century,” end in a note of bitter self-irony: Sid may have contributed to the solving of the case but in the process of doing so he has lost his girl. Ruth’s presence, however, will be felt as a source of longing and admonition, well into Book II, “The Trial of the Century,” in which we are introduced not only to the grand old figure of Jonathan Wilk—closely modeled on the legendary trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, whose summation, with its majestic biblical cadences, is presented verbatim—but to a host of defense lawyers, prosecutors, and forensic psychiatrists (alienists, in the common parlance of the twenties). It is here that the documentary aspect of the novel—a form pioneered by my father—is most apparent, as the narrative turns into a deftly paced court drama where the legal versus the psychiatric (specifically, Freudian) delineations of insanity, and, at greater risk in its exposition, homosexuality, are brought into interplay.
As to the last, rereading Compulsion in the twenty-first century, more than fifty years after the novel was written and at a distance of close to a century from the Roaring Twenties when the crime took place, one cannot help being impressed by the candor with which homosexuality is treated. Indeed, one of the battles waged in court (if not the battle) between the state attorney and the defense lawyers lies precisely in the former’s vilification of homosexuality, repeatedly referring to the murderers as “perverts,” and the latters’ appeal to a broader understanding of psychopathology and, in the case of Judd and Artie, of homosexual love as a rare form of folie à deux. This may be a far cry from our own perceptions of homosexuality in the wake of the gay revolution, wherein gay and lesbian relations are no longer classified as pathological in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but the general display of tolerance evinced by the psychiatrists for the defense—and here again my father is relying on memory, documentation, and his own imagination as he records Sid Silver’s reaction to the trial—may very well have contributed to the first, tentative signs of normalization of gay relations in America in the mid-fifties when Compulsion appeared in print.
Just how World War II and the Holocaust link up with the crime committed by Judd and Artie I will leave for the reader to discover in the concluding pages of the novel. Hints are dropped along the way: on hearing of the crime for the first time, “On that day it was as though the crime had split open a small crack in the surface of the world, and we could see through into the evil that was yet to emerge”; on responding to Judd’s Nietzsche-inspired theories exempting superior man from ordinary laws, “It was hard to take their words and believe them, just as it was to be hard, only a decade later in our lives, to believe that an entire nation could seriously subscribe to this superman code”; on listening to the psychiatrist’s testimony, “And then I realized. Had we not seen massive demonstrations in our time of entire populations so infected with some mad leader’s delusions”; and again, responding to Wilk’s dramatic summation, “There in 1924, in the Chicago courtroom, far from the Munich where another Nietzschean began his march in 1924, the tocsin for the era was scarcely heard.” In all such cases Sid Silver thrusts the reader back into the present, reminding us, as he has in imagining certain scenes between Ruth and Judd, that the narrator is writing from the postwar perspective of the fifties. It is also in such cases that Sid Silver and my father become almost indistinguishable: “I went to Italy, I went to Germany. Something of the great malaise, the gathering sickness of Europe, began to be felt, and it was as though I had already known it; the taste of it was quite familiar to me from Chicago. Everything was as though expected. So the years passed.” My father set to work on his documentary novel soon after hearing that Leopold was to receive a parole hearing (Loeb was killed in prison in 1936). Feeling the burden of responsibility, he wrote, “If I turn to him now in a full effort to comprehend him, will I do well or will I only add to confusion?” Nathan Leopold was released on parole in 1958, two years after the publication of Compulsion.
Would you like some questions to kick off the discussion within your group? Please feel free to avail yourself of the following. (We’d love to hear how they work out for you. Please tell us on Twitter or Facebook.)