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Meyer Levin’s Compulsion

September 21, 2012

Meyer Levin described Compulsion (1956), his fictionalisation of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial, as a ‘contemporary historical novel or a documentary novel’. Today, the novel reads more like what Truman Capote dubbed, and by his own account invented with In Cold Blood (1966), a non-fiction novel. Although largely forgotten by literary critics, Compulsion is a superior book to In Cold Blood and to the many imitators in the true crime genre which followed Capote’s celebrated work.

Compulsion is based on the murder of Robert ‘Bobby’ Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Leopold and Loeb were two University of Chicago law students from wealthy families. In May 1924 the two students kidnapped and murdered Franks in an attempt to prove their intellectual superiority by committing the perfect crime. If such a thing as the perfect crime does exist, this was not it. Within a week the two men were arrested and charged: their elaborate plan fell apart when Leopold’s eyeglasses were found near the corpse. The subsequent trial gripped the nation. Although it was an open and shut case, there was a deeper mystery to events: why had two such privileged and intelligent young men committed such a barbaric crime and would they be executed for it? Famed attorney Clarence Darrow defended Leopold and Loeb at the trial, which ultimately resulted in both men escaping capital punishment but being sentenced to life imprisonment. Loeb was killed by fellow prisoner James E. Day in 1936. Day alleged that Loeb was attempting to rape him, although this claim seems dubious. Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958 and spent his remaining days doing medical research in Puerto Rico.

Meyer Levin was also a University of Chicago student when the story of Leopold and Loeb first broke and was well-placed to factually recreate the case in novel form. In Compulsion, Leopold and Loeb are portrayed as Judd Steiner and Artie Straus. Clarence Darrow is renamed Jonathan Wilk. The name changes are important as in this detail the novel differs from later non-fiction novels. The novel is narrated in the first person by a ‘cub’ reporter Sid Silver who covers the case. The novel begins with the murder itself, and then Levin shows the immediate aftermath: the widespread fear of a serial killer being on the loose is supplanted by disbelief as suspicion slowly falls on Straus and Steiner who in their arrogant belief that they can outwit the police inadvertently reveal their guilt. Much of the novel reads as a discourse on philosophy and psychology. Straus and Steiner are fascinated by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and model themselves on the Nietzschean Ubermensch,  ‘Supermen’ who create their own values and live above conventional morality. Despite, or perhaps because of, their formidable intellect, the two killers have practically no emotional intelligence. They are easily outwitted by investigators who are even able to demonstrate how they have misunderstood Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Psychology is the other key theme of the novel, and much effort is given to explaining the crime in terms of Freudian theories which were just beginning to have an impact in the U.S. in the mid-1920s. On both these themes, Levin artfully displays the fallibility of knowledge. At the time of the novel’s publication, Freud still held great sway in academe, but his influence has become more cultural than scientific, and the Freudian analysis of Straus and Steiner seems particularly contrived.  The 1924 setting is skilfully evoked. This was an age when people were still recovering from the horrors of the Great War. There is a degree of optimism regarding humanity’s future and the pursuit of knowledge, but as Silver is narrating the novel after the Second World War, both reader and narrator know that even more unspeakable horrors await mankind. Thus, a single murder motivated by Nietzschean philosophy acts as a microcosm of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by a Nazi ideology which was itself inspired by Nietzsche.

Compulsion is divided into two parts: Book One is titled ‘The Crime of Our Century’ and deals with the murder and aftermath. Straus and Steiner’s trial is covered in Book Two: ‘The Trial of the Century’. Note the difference between ‘Our’ and ‘The’. For Levin, the murder of Bobby Franks represented the murder of a little part of humanity. In an age when religion had lost its authority and empires were crumbling, new humanist ideals were emerging, but these had been corrupted to the extent that Straus and Steiner regard murder not as a moral abomination but as an abstract concept. Sid Silver ruminates on their motive in  prose which is both moving and thrilling to read:

We could, in that night, only grasp their claim of an experiment, an intellectual experiment, as Judd put it, in creating a perfect crime. They would avow no other motive: their act sought to isolate the pure essence of murder

Before, we had thought the boys could only have committed the murder under some sudden dreadful impulse. But now we learned how the deed had been marked by a long design developed in full detail. What was new to us was this entry in the dark, vast area of death as an abstraction. Much later, we were to seek the deeper cause that compelled these two individuals to commit this particular murder under the guise, even the illusion, that it was an experiment.

Just as there is no absolute vacuum, there is no absolute abstraction. But one approaches a vacuum by removing atmosphere, and so, in the pretentious excuse offered by Judd, it seemed that by removing the common atmospheres of lust, hatred, greed, one could approach the perfect essence of crime.

Thus one might come down to an isolated killing impulse in humanity. To kill, as we put it in the headlines, for a thrill! For an excitation that had no emotional base. I think the boys themselves believed that this was what they had done.

At first their recital sounded much like an account of daydreams that all could recognize. They had been playing with the idea of the “perfect murder.” Is not the whole of detective-story literature built on the common fantasy? True, in such stories we always supply a conventional motive. We accept that a man may kill for a legacy or for jealously or for revenge, though inwardly we may make the reservation – that’s foolish, the butler wouldn’t go so far. We accept that a dictator may unleash a war out of “economic needs” or “lust for power” but inwardly we keep saying, “Why? Why? Why?”

Sadly, Meyer Levin never got the recognition he deserved. He will be remembered perhaps as one of American literature’s great nearly men. He undertook exhausting research to adapting Anne Frank’s diary into a Broadway play, but his version was never produced as he was replaced with other writers. It was a loss that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Compulsion is now often overlooked in the True Crime field for Capote’s In Cold Blood, but the Leopold and Loeb case was a more complex and significant event in American history than the Clutter family murders which Capote novelised. In Cold Blood is remembered less for being a great book than it is for the ethical issues raised by Capote’s relationship with the two killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith and the tragedy which befall Capote due to the books phenomenal success.

My advice – read Compulsion, it’s a better book.

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