(from the archives)
COMPULSION by Meyer Levin
(Review by Deb)
Meyer Levin's COMPULSION is a lightly-fictionalized account of the sensational Leopold and Loeb murder case that gripped the nation in the mid-1920s. Meyer's fictionalization (published in 1956) is very light indeed, with much of the dialog being taken verbatim from transcripts of police records and court testimony. Even so, the novel is more than just a retelling of a senseless and horrific crime, it is a perceptive study of what the French call a folie-a-deux, wherein two people who are utterly toxic for each other are none-the-less hopelessly attracted to each other and, in the thrall of that attraction, commit acts that neither would necessarily have done without the dark-mirror image of the other goading them on.
In Levin's book, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb become Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss, neighbors in Chicago's wealthy and close-knit German-Jewish community. (There's a small but telling detail when Judd informs his aunt that he's going out with a girl named Ruth Goldenberg and his aunt sighs, "Oh, Russian-Jewish I suppose.") Both men were child prodigies who had graduated from university by the time they were 18 years old. As the book begins, both of them are still in their teens (as is Sid Silver, a newspaperman who narrates part of the book and plays a pivotal role in uncovering some of the evidence). Adopting the guise of Nietzschean "supermen" who do not need to follow the laws applicable to average beings, Steiner and Strauss plan the "perfect murder." They eventually kidnap a randomly-selected neighborhood boy on his way home from school. They kill the boy, pour acid on the corpse, hide the body in a drainage ditch, and then put into motion an elaborate red-herring of a kidnapping-ransom plot.
This perfect murder rapidly unravels, starting with the victim's body being quickly discovered and identified. Then damning evidence stacks up against the men: Steiner's glasses--traced to him by their unique hinge mechanism--are found beside the victim, there is blood on the back seat of a car the men have rented, papers typed on Steiner's discarded typewriter match the typing on the bogus ransom notes, and Strauss's attempts to inject himself into the investigation (in order to discover how much the press and police actually know) backfire spectacularly. Their alibis in shreds, the men confess to the crime, each blaming the other for striking the fatal blow (although, as Sid Silver points out, in that regard, one of them had to be telling the truth).
Considering that the book was written in the 1950s about a crime in the 1920s, one aspect that I found surprising (and rather refreshing) was its refusal to take the "easy" way out and blame the men's actions on the fact that they were closeted lovers, although society at the time certainly did, blaming all manner of depraved behavior on homosexuality. However, narrator Sid Silver is puzzled by how much stress the authorities place on the men's relationship and asks of it, "In all the history of human behaviour, of the sick and ugly and distorted and careless and sportive and mistaken things that humans did, was this so much more?"
In fact, Levin does not present the men as sexually "set," but rather most likely bisexual, with Judd being more interested in dominance and submission rather than the gender of his partner, and Artie using his good looks, affable facade, and charisma to attract both men and women. I was also surprised at the frankness of the book, given the time it was written--Judd's dark fantasies, especially involving rape, are quite explicit. Levin's book makes us feel if not sympathy then at least some understanding, particularly for the intense and brooding Judd whose infatuation with the manipulative and self-centered Artie is as inexplicable as its dreadful outcome is inevitable.
But I've only covered the first half of the book. The second half, which centers on the mens' trial, is interesting, although it drags in places due to pages of legal arguments and long-winded explanations of Freudian psychology with which we are now completely familiar. In order to avoid a jury trial and a sure death penalty, Steiner and Strauss plead guilty in the hopes that arguing before a judge might result in a life, rather than a death, sentence. Aging lawyer Jonathan Wilk (a fictionalized Clarence Darrow) mounts a brilliant legal defense at their sentencing hearing that saves the men from execution, although they both receive sentences of “Life plus 99 years.” And, other than a brief coda, there the book abruptly ends, with Steiner and Straus entering prison and fading from public memory.
But this abruptness works in the book's favor by indicating that there will be other events and other atrocities that will come to overshadow the "crime of the century." First of all, the rise of "some gangster named Al Capone" (as he is described in an offhand remark by one of Sid's colleagues about a gangland shooting) and the associated violence of Prohibition. And then the actual "crime of the century"--the Nazi atrocities of World War II and everything the world was to learn about the "Superman" ideal and where it leads.
Meyer Levin wrote this book in part to assist Nathan Leopold in his attempt to be granted parole, which finally happened in 1958. Leopold moved to Puerto Rico, married, worked as an x-ray technician, and died in 1971. Richard Loeb was not so fortunate: In 1936, he was stabbed multiple times by a fellow inmate who claimed Loeb had made sexual advances toward him. Although the story was easily discounted, especially since Loeb was covered with defensive wounds and the inmate who killed him was unscathed, no charges were ever filed in his death.