Adam Kirsch Reviews Meyer Levin's 'Compulsion,' the 1956 Novel About the Leopold and Loeb Murder Case.
When you think of how many people have died violent deaths in the last 90 years, it's strange that a single murder from 1924 should still be remembered at all, much less regarded as the crime of the century. But the killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb was no ordinary murder. We are used to murderers who kill out of greed, rage, jealousy, fear, or hatred; we are even used to genocides committed for ideological or political reasons. What is hard to comprehend, even today, is a murder committed for no reason at all. Yet when Leopold and Loeb, two teenage friends from wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, convinced Franks to get into their car one afternoon after school and then beat him to death with a chisel, the sheer absence of motive was itself their motive. Their goal, they explained during the subsequent investigation and trial, was to commit a "perfect crime," by which they meant one that was entirely gratuitous, conceived as an intellectual project and carried out with a kind of scientific detachment. "It is just as easy to justify such a death as it is to justify an entomologist killing a beetle on a pin," Leopold explained.
It's no wonder that so many writers and filmmakers have been drawn to the Leopold and Loeb case, since the crime itself was so literary in inspiration. The killers, both child prodigies who graduated from the University of Chicago while in their teens, had absorbed their moral detachment from famous books: Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov philosophically justifies his murder of an old woman; Lafcadio's Adventures, the Andre Gide novel that introduced the world to the idea of the acte gratuit, the motiveless crime; above all, the works of Nietzsche, which taught Leopold and Loeb that the superior man, the Abermensch, was not bound by conventional morality. These were the books that created the modern mind, with its constant temptation to nihilism, the belief that everything is permitted because everything in meaningless.
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