from my bookshelf: compulsion by meyer levin


this is the fictionalized version of the leopold and loeb case (the murder of a 14-year-old boy in chicago in May 1924). levin’s account is about two young men who were born into an elite Jewish chicago community and commit a murder in the 1920s. why did they do it? to see if they could get away with it. compulsion explores the beginnings of the insanity defense in american criminal trials and forces readers to face a scary truth: in murder, there is always a how, but, disturbingly, not necessarily a why. levin also analyzes the complicated feelings that the loved ones of killers feel, particularly guilt and the feeling that they could have done something to prevent their child/friend/boyfriend from killing someone. it also raises the question of whether killers are 100% evil; is it possible for someone to voluntarily kill but not be an entirely bad person? does it matter? these difficult questions and more are discussed within the frame of an enthralling crime and trial which are especially compelling because they are based on a true story.


“In his solid house with his solid furniture it seemed an impossible thing that a kidnapping should have happened to him.”

“Yes, they themselves had proved it; they had made a destiny, purely at random. Wouldn’t that settle forever the silly argument about any meaning in life? Concatenation of circumstances–admitted–but meaningless, meaningless . . .”

“For in all of us I suppose there remains a belief in retribution. If a man is struck by misfortune, surely he must have committed some sin. And thus the victim immediately becomes the accused.”

“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.”

“And the most wonderful part of it, sensed for the first time there, was that they two together were a kind of secret power, like their own Black Hand–they could stand right there in the midst of the crowd, and nobody would even suspect they were the ones.”

“For Judd, this was a kind of proof. When you were a kid, parents tried to make you fear an all-watching God, and ever after that you felt a kind of fear that if you did something, people might somehow see it on you. But there was nothing! Nothing showed! You did whatever you damn pleased. And that was Artie’s philosophy.”

“Against such people, it was a certainty he and Artie had to succeed; they could not be caught, any more than two and two could make five.”

“She hopes he doesn’t feel, because he has such a brilliant mind, that it is his duty to taste every crime like rape and murder.”

“There was a growing anxiety, a growing presage that something new and terrible and uncontrollable, some new murder-germ was here involved.”

“Even before the boys were arrested, there was this dreadful foreknowledge of the escape of some always present, imperfectly contained violence, and if we did not capture it, if we did not hold it and examine it and master its containment, we were all unceasingly exposed, lost.”

“The pressure was still within him to live as if each day were his last, as if the gripping hand might fall at any moment upon his shoulder; this was indeed what he had sought–the intensification of life.”

“He is still free, and perhaps in the crime he has committed with Artie he has made himself free forever, for as the toils of natural love reach toward him, the toils, also, of the punishing law may be reaching to seize him.”

“But he would be safe. He was changing; he had to be safe to find out what he was going to be like.”

“Was that what he wanted so much, wanted to tears? To acquiesce in the commonplace, and to be two people who tried telling each other everything, everything?”

“We were struggling with the first and lifelong problem of man–to find out how things happen.”