Author: Meyer Levin
Publisher: Carroll and Graf Publishers
American release date: April 1996
Format/Genre/Length: Novel/Psychological Thriller/412 pages
Publisher/Industry Age Rating: NR
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★
At the time, it was touted as the crime of the century. In 1924, a child named Bobby Franks was kidnapped and held for ransom. His family was a wealthy one, and willing to pay what it would take to have Bobby returned unharmed. But even before the final ransom arrangements were made, Bobby was already dead. What was even more shocking was the identity of his killers—two young men, both geniuses, both born into privilege and wealth, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Their story has been fictionalized and told in this novel by Meyer Levin.
In this retelling of their story, Leopold and Loeb become Judd Steiner and Artie Straus. They are both boy geniuses, and at the tender ages of seventeen and eighteen had already graduated from college. Compulsion is narrated by reporter Sid Silver, who is a fictionalized version of author Meyer Levin, who actually knew Leopold and Loeb. It begins with Sid accidentally being drawn into the case of the kidnapped boy, and follows the story through what was called the Trial of the Century, when Steiner and Straus’s parents paid for the best legal defense money could buy, in the form of Jonathan Wilk (in real life, Clarence Darrow).
Prior to reading the novel, I’d known about the case for a long time, having an acute interest in murder, and especially in famous murders in history. But I’d never read much about it, and had thought it wasn’t a very interesting story.
How very wrong I was.
From the beginning of the novel, I found myself riveted by this tale. Levin brought to bear both his knowledge of the young men and his skills as a storyteller to weave a fascinating indepth psychological study of the two young men who killed Bobby Franks as nothing more than an intellectual exercise. We follow them as they make their ransom demands, despite the fact that Bobby is already dead, meticulously planning every step so that nothing can go wrong. When Bobby’s body is discovered before the ransom is delivered, things start to go wrong, but even so, they are sure that nobody can trace the crime back to them. Very cocksure they are. So much that Artie sticks his nose into the investigation, constantly demanding to know what’s going on. And while Artie swaggers and postures, Judd begins an odd sort of relationship with Sid’s girlfriend.
Ultimately, Judd and Artie are caught and they confess and are put on trial, which is when the parents arrange for Wilk to defend them. Not to free them, but to fight for their lives. Everyone expects them to plead insanity, but Wilk doesn’t go that route. He doesn’t want to have a jury trial, calculates that he has a better chance of convincing one man—the judge—that these young men deserve to live, rather than twelve. If he declares them insane, then it automatically becomes a matter for the jury.
I was riveted from the start by their story. What was especially considered shocking at the time in which this took place was the relationship between Judd and Artie, who were not just best friends, but lovers. Homosexuality was far from accepted then and there. So much so that the boys were forced to hide their relationship in order to avoid the censure of their families as well as their friends, and society as a whole. One time they were caught together in flagrante, and the boy who caught them told, which was particularly hard on them. Their parents separated them. From that time, they made a pact between them concerning their relationship and knew they had to hide it.
At first, once the truth of their relationship came to light after the confession to the crime, everyone assumed that Judd was the mastermind, that he called the shots between them, but this was far from the case. Judd was the follower, Artie the leader. It was Artie that actually killed the boy, and not the first time he’d committed such a crime. That being the case, one has to wonder if these two had not become such fast friends, introduced by their families because each was a bit of a loner and they had a great deal in common, would Bobby Franks have been allowed to live a long and natural life? We’ll never know.
I also have to wonder if Judd and Artie were not forced to hide their relationship, if they could have been open about it, and not subject to societal scorn and derisions, perhaps they could have channeled their energies into more productive outlets.
I was especially drawn to Judd, for he is undoubtedly the more sympathetic of the two boys. Left to his own devices, I don’t think he would have gotten into trouble. He was an avid birdwatcher, and actually discovered a species believed to be extinct. But the combination of these two boys, who were so advanced for their ages intellectually yet not so much emotionally, was a dangerous one. If it’s possible to fall in love with a fictional character, I fell for Judd/Nathan Leopold.
In school, both Judd and Artie studied Nietszche, and I can see where they came to embody his philosophy of the Superman—one who is so knowledgeable concerning life and people that he is above ordinary laws, because he knows what is best. I think Judd and Artie saw themselves in the same way. They bore no animosity toward Bobby Frank. In fact, it was dumb luck that he was chosen to be their victim.
There is so much depth to this novel. I loved it from beginning to end. Watching Jonathan Wilk/Clarence Darrow defend them was amazing. This was his last big case, and he went out with a bang.
The real Artie Straus/Richard Loeb was killed in prison in 1936. Judd/Nathan Leopold was paroled in 1958, and went on to marry and move to Puerto Rico, where he died in 1971. A visitor to his home remarked on the fact that there was a very prominent picture of Richard Loeb there. That speaks volumes to me.