Killer Queens: Avoid at all Costs

A few weeks ago a friend texted to let me know that a new Leopold and Loeb book would be coming out in mid-October. I was very excited; it was completely unexpected, and the publisher’s website promised that the book, the first in a series about gay murders, would explore how being gay at the time influenced the crime, trial and fallout. I paid my twenty dollars to pre-order it and waited in gleeful anticipation.

I got my copy yesterday, inexplicably a week earlier than the publication date (thanks Amazon), and was extremely pleased. Several passages in the first two chapters read like fiction:

“Leopold loved the soft feel of his hair as he ran his fingers through it and the delicious scent it permeated. It wouldn’t be long before he drifted off into space, fantasizing that Loeb was standing beside him, and it was Loeb who was running his hands through his hair.”

And a few pages later:

“All of a sudden, Loeb blurted out with silliness, ‘This is the day that your life will surely change. This is the day that things will fall into place.'”

There are long conversations between the pair, their escapades in various gay parts of town are shown, the reader is even treated to the most ludicrous explanation I’ve ever seen of where the nicknames ‘Dickie’ and ‘Babe’ came from. For me, this was everything I had hoped for; a book that was so bizarre that it marketed fiction as non fiction and made entire scenes, conversations, hobbies and attributes out of whole cloth, just the kind of nonsense I like to see in cheap books like this. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long, because as I kept reading I started to get the curious feeling that I’d seen some of this somewhere before.

I easily identified some Baatz wording: the biographies given for Leopold and Loeb had large passages of them taken directly from Baatz’s book and his 2008 article published in the Smithsonian magazine which is available online and often copied word for word in videos and podcasts. The crime description was taken completely from that article, before morphing into a wonderfully ridiculous sex scene.

But once I hit chapter three, the tone shifted completely. Gone were the weird historical explanations of things like Brilliantine hair cream and how Leopold sympathized with Hitler and that Leopold and Loeb hoped to get legal help from gay president Hoover, replaced instead with transcripts of documents.

That’s pretty lazy, that 3/4 of this book is just copies of excerpts from the interrogations, confessions, trial transcript, letters and Leopold’s book. An uninspired cash grab to be sure, but if it was all it was, I wouldn’t be writing this review. A quick peek online confirmed my suspicions though: chapters three through sixteen have been copied, almost in their entirety, from the Leopold and Loeb website CrimeArchives.net.

The excerpts taken from the interrogations are what were posted there. The sections of the confessions they include? Also exactly the same sections Crime Archives included. Same goes for the psychiatric testimony and closing arguments. The Archive wrote up a timeline of events which was copied exactly. The Archive also transcribed letters, and all but one of those transcripts was copied and pasted into this book. Looking back, I noticed that the biographies the Archive wrote up for Leopold, Loeb, Darrow and Crowe were all used, almost in their entireties, in this book as well.

Practically, this makes the book almost unreadable. Because the information was copied from various sources, there’s a lot of information that contradicts earlier passages, and even more moments where things are repeated. Leopold and Loeb’s deaths are both described more than once in different chapters, Loeb is described as going to high school, then college, then his high school life is described again, and then back to college. There’s also only about 50 pages of a narrative before the documents begin.

So essentially this is a book that’s maybe 20 pages of fiction, and 170 pages of material that’s been copied and pasted from other sources and lazily assembled, with minimal editing, and is now being sold for $20.

Once I realized what this book was, I couldn’t sit here and let Alan Warren profit off of the work of the person who put together the Crime Archives. I have to discourage anyone reading this from buying this book, just go read the Crime Archives and Baatz’s article, that’ll give you almost the full experience and it won’t cost a cent.

Site Updates for January

Hello everyone, just wanted to put out a quick summary of things I changed about the site this past month.

  • I separated the Fiction and Non Fiction sections because I realized that lumping everything together and sorting it by the year it came out is just a not very intuitive way of organizing that information. That and I kept getting lost when trying to add information because the page sizes were just too large. The original giant Fiction and Non Fiction pages remain and will keep being updated, but Fiction is now sorted into separate pages for movies, books, television episodes, theatre pieces and other, and Non Fiction is sorted into books, documentaries, podcasts, videos and other. You can navigate to those in the menu at the top of the site as usual.
  • There have been a number of new podcasts and youtube videos that have come out, which have been added to their relevant pages.
  • I posted a review for the historical fiction novel Semblance of Balance, which you can read here.
  • A new Leopold-Loeb inspired book came out in December of last year, here’s the information from the publisher’s website:

The Good Evil Queen by Michael Fridgen

About the Book
It all started when Laura Ingalls Wilder’s quilt was taken from a museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Soon, other items from small museums dedicated to famous Minnesotans began to disappear. However, as with many criminals, the thief can’t stop while ahead.

The situation worsens as the incidents escalate, and the thief searches for a perfect accomplice. Reminiscent of the 1924 Leopold and Loebe atrocity, these two thugs unleash a spree that terrorizes northern Minnesota—all in the pursuit of the perfect crime. As the police and lawyers get involved, people in the area begin to debate the nature of criminals and whether an excuse should lead to an exoneration.

From Sinclair Lewis’ funeral urn to Glensheen’s wicked candlestick, The Good Evil Queen by Michael Frigden offers a crime thriller from the pages of Minnesota’s history.

I added it to the fiction pages and just received a copy in the mail today. A review may be forthcoming, it’s hard to tell with books of this kind because they may be too divorced from the inspiration source for me to have much to comment on.

Thank you for your continued support, I hope everyone is having a lovely winter (or whatever season it is where you are in the world.)

Semblance of Balance: Where Genealogy and True Crime Collide

With ancestry.com and other online genealogy sites, it’s easier than ever to research our family histories and find wonderful relics of the past that give us glimpses into the lives of our forbearers. Wayne Nielsen took this journey into the past a step further when in 2002 he published Semblance of Balance, a historical fiction novel about his grandmother, Elizabeth Sattler. Nielsen, who was five when his grandmother died, uses Semblance to explore his grandmother meeting and falling in love with his grandfather, as well as her time serving as a maid in the Leopold home and her perspective on the crime and trial.

As a piece of writing about a grandson exploring his family’s history, the struggles of immigration and the long-term effects war may have had on his grandparents, the book works quite well. Despite some gripes I have, there are many things I appreciated about this book. The unique perspective hasn’t been explored by any other author, the conversations the working class characters have around the war and hardships they’ve faced and how their worldliness, especially around the realities of death and war, make them more knowledgeable and empathetic than the rich are interesting, and though Sattler’s future husband can be violent, it is presented as not the same removed cold-blooded violence of Leopold and Loeb, examining the idea that this crime could only be committed by the very out of touch rich.

I imagine if that’s all it was, this book would be thought-provoking to read and for the family would start conversations and perhaps help illuminate what life had been like for their ancestors. Unfortunately, Nielsen pushed the Leopold-Loeb angle too far and that’s where things fall apart.

The first problem that comes of tying a story to a well-recognized and heavily documented event is that the inaccuracies become extremely obvious. Though the book’s summary claims Nielsen spent seven years researching for this book, I assume most of that went to his family history and that of the times, rather than the Leopold-Loeb element. In his epilogue he writes that if Sattler read the book he hoped “she would honor me with an indifference to details,” which is not a great sign.

To get it out of the way: the book is extremely inaccurate. Dates are wrong, there’s anachronistic language and items, characterization is all over the place and maddeningly, not a single member of the Leopold family has their physicality described correctly. Nathan Sr. gained 5 inches, Mrs. Leopold lost about 100 pounds, even simple details that could have been gleaned from any number of sources like the hair and eye colors of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were wrong.

But the major problem in this book comes from a disconnect between Sattler as the protagonist and the ways the story has to warp to ensure the reader still gets the entire picture. In this book Sattler was hired in the spring of 1921 as a nurse for Nathan Leopold’s mother Florence, who is bedridden. The two become extremely close, spending most of their time together, sharing their dreams and secrets, and when Florence dies in October of 1922 Sattler agrees to stay on as a maid in order to watch over the family in Florence’s honor.

As she accepts this responsibility, Sattler begins to assume an almost maternal role for Leopold, who confides in her many of his fears, the crimes he commits with Loeb and his philosophical views. Throughout the book Sattler argues against Leopold’s developing philosophy and the influence of Loeb, who is extremely rude to everyone and who she easily recognizes as evil.

During the murder and aftermath she hears and sees enough to know the entire story and is directly connected with much of it: she throws a ball to Bobby during his last baseball game, sees Leopold and Loeb pick him up from the street, attends his funeral service and after testifying identifying Leopold’s typewriter and car robe, Carl Sandburg sneaks her back into the courthouse so she can see more of the trial. Most of all she struggles with guilt for not stopping or helping Leopold before it was too late.

These events are interspersed with her budding relationship with KK, the owner of a mechanical shop, who on one of their first dates beats a man in front of her. This shakes her, but it is upon learning that he is divorced that she really has to question what she’s looking for in a partner and what it means to be a modern woman in America.

I would hope that the problems with this narritive are fairly obvious.

In order to give Sattler this feeling of responsibility over the family, Nielsen had to alter the timeline and likely Sattler’s role in the home. In reality Sattler began working for the Leopolds in May of 1921 and Florence died in October of 1921, just five months later. And though Sattler was a nurse before coming to America, it is never mentioned that she was anything except second maid in the Leopold home. Florence had nurses attending her in the months before her death, and perhaps Sattler helped in some capacity, but it seems a mighty leap to assume that even if Sattler had helped care for her, that would translate to the mothering role she mantles herself with. And even if she saw herself as responsible in that way, there’s zero indication that Leopold saw her as anything but a servant or spent any time with her.

In order to make room for Sattler as a mother figure and confidante to Leopold, Nielsen also had to get rid of Leopold’s Aunt Birdie, the actual woman who took over the mothering role for Leopold when her sister died. Though Birdie was described by everyone I’ve seen as almost a saint; a gentle, warm woman who visited and corresponded with Leopold nearly every week until her death, someone like that would make Sattler’s role redundant. Nielsen decided to leave Birdie in the story, but describes her as neurotic, flighty, demanding, and in her only interaction with Leopold, Birdie has to steady herself with a handkerchief, snaps at him and says he’ll be the death of her.

It may go without saying, as this sort of thing is par for the course in adaptations, but the Loeb in this version is 100% evil and makes no effort to disguise that. Everyone hates him, every time he sees Sattler he’s rude to her, calling her stupid, insulting her clothes, singing about testicles and the transience of life at Bobby’s funeral. He is the driving force behind Leopold’s obsession with the Nietzschean philosophy that infects the duo and apparently makes a habit of lynching birds (and sometimes Leopold). Sattler and other characters state directly that Loeb was the cause of Leopold’s downfall.

While no one will argue that Loeb was a saint, nearly everyone who knew him commented on his ability to charm people and come across as a kind, polite, upstanding young man, which made the revelation of his criminality that much more shocking. I much prefer that dichotomy to the standard cartoonishly evil serial killer characterization Nielsen gives him here. Having that kind of Loeb also helps remove some of the blame from Leopold, making him parrot Loeb’s philosophy rather than discovering it on his own, and helps sell Nielsen’s characterization of Leopold as sickly and weak but ultimately good-hearted.

Besides the accuracy problems, in order to get Sattler to experience as much of the Leopold-Loeb story as possible, credulity has to be stretched to the breaking point. Nathan Jr. and Nathan Sr. both have completely inappropriate conversations with Sattler in order to give her exposition, and she seems to spend 90% of her time listening at doors to hear the rest. Leopold and Loeb are physically affectionate in front of her, as soon as he and Loeb commit a crime he goes home to tell her about it, and Nathan Sr. asks Sattler to forgive him for the way Leopold turned out.

These kinds of scenes are ludicrous, but the amount of information she’s privy to also muddies the waters as far as Sattler’s character is concerned. If the actual Elizabeth Sattler had seen and heard all that this one had, she absolutely should have told someone or at least been a lynchpin witness after the fact. Her testimony during the trial is pulled directly from the actual transcripts, but in this book her only testifying about seeing a typewriter in Leopold’s study and identifying his car robe seems odd when, according to this story, she was a witness to them going to set up a fake bank account, the kidnapping itself and some evidence disposal, in addition to Leopold’s confessions of previous crimes.

A story like this could definitely have potential. The perspective of one of the governesses’ of Leopold or Loeb would have fit this motherly responsibility plot better, but without that angle the perspective of a servant in the life of a family like this still has a lot of merit. Watching as a teenager develops into a murderer and what happens behind closed doors once that’s revealed would be fascinating. Unfortunately, the family dynamics here aren’t explored in any capacity. Leopold’s brothers Sam and Mike speak a few sentences over the entire novel, their foster-brother Bal is never mentioned and Nathan Sr. is almost never shown interacting with his sons. Even within the household servants, only two are mentioned: the cook and chauffeur, and they also mostly exist to give exposition.

Overall I think this book is worth a read, despite the inaccuracies. The writing is serviceable, though a bit heavy handed at times, and there are interesting themes and angles explored that aren’t typically seen in Leopold-Loeb retellings. But after finishing it it does make me wish that Nielsen had either spent more time researching the Leopold-Loeb case, or focused the story more on his grandparents, rather than creating this ambitious but confused book.

Here’s a little collection of things I didn’t know how to work into the rest of the review organically:

  • When Sattler first arrives at the Leopold home she speaks almost no English. Nathan Sr. and Birdie both speak to her in English as she struggles to answer in a mix of English and German, so she’s relieved and heartened when Nathan Leopold meets her and speaks to her in German. I thought this was an odd choice, because the family was bilingual and spoke German at home, so I assumed the other family members were being deliberately cruel or trying to force her to learn English. But it turns out that my knowing too much about this case spoiled me yet again, as in this story Leopold is the only member of the family who speaks German.
  • Nielsen says in his forward that his first exposure to the Leopold-Loeb story was the 1959 Compulsion movie and it shows. In Compulsion Leopold attempted to rape a girl friend, here he pursues Sattler sexually, culminating in him groping her breasts and nipples. As the Leopold character’s rape attempt in Compulsion is seen as an attempt to assert his normality and is proof that he isn’t irredeemable, Leopold’s assault on Sattler here is stated as being like an infant and is paralleled with a memory Sattler has of a dying soldier stroking her breast as a child would, looking for comfort. In both stories it is stated that if only Leopold had escaped Loeb and gone to Europe he could have found a nice girl and been a normal boy.
  • Sattler befriends Carl Sandburg and is bothered by Meyer Levin during the hearing, both presented as reporters covering the case. In fact, neither did. Though both worked for Chicago papers at the time, Levin was in Europe that summer and Sandburg was a film critic who spent much of his time that summer and fall working on his first Lincoln biography outside of the city.
  • Florence has a prophetic dream about Bobby’s murder before her death.
  • Nielsen claims that Nathan Sr. gave Sattler Florence’s bed as a wedding present because the two had been so close. I don’t know if that’s true, but if Sattler did get the bed, it may have been because the family put the house up for sale in October and were trying to get rid of furniture. Not wanting to go through the zoo that happened when the Franks put their furniture up for auction that fall, the family may have discretely given some of it away to the servants. This happening the month before Sattler’s November wedding could have led to this misunderstanding.
  • Sattler finds a pair of Leopold’s underwear with blood on the back. She refers to this as “the mark of homosexuality.”
  • The ornithology in this book is so inaccurate I would hesitate before recommending it to a birder. Common birds are described as life-changing scientific finds, specimens are sent to a taxidermist, mounted and returned in an afternoon, and one bird is described as a “hairy mass.” I don’t know where that hair came from and I don’t want to.

These Violent Delights: The Space Between the Imagined and the Real

Note: This review will contain spoilers. I would highly recommend reading this book for yourself before reading further.

Two queer teenage boys form a close bond, then gradually develop a private game between them to plan a philosophically motivated murder, choose a victim and carry out their plan – the plot of novelist Micah Nemerever’s These Violent Delights will seem familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance to the Leopold-Loeb case, but this can not be lumped so quickly into the category of an outright adaptation.

As stated in his author’s note, this book was partially inspired by Nemerever’s short-lived teenage interest with the Leopold-Loeb case. Says the author about the relation between the case and his novel: “The finer details of the Leopold and Loeb case turned out not to interest me (by now I’ve forgotten most of them), but I retained my fascination with the places in the case where I had seen some reflection of myself. This resulted in a book that ended up being more thematically concerned with those surface-level commonalities than with the actual case.” In this way These Violent Delights shares with Leopold-Loeb the basic skeletal structure, but holds themes and characters wholly its own.

The novel follows the perspective of Paul Fleisher, an introverted, friendless, artistic boy suffering from intense self-loathing problems as he navigates his first year of college and his new relationship with the more extroverted Julian Fromme. It is here that the book’s substance lies, in the relationship between Paul and Julian and in all the lies they spin about each other and themselves as they learn who they are as a pair.

Paul is quick to become obsessed with Julian and to be hurt by him, by the comments he makes and the ways he acts. Paul understands that Julian’s kindnesses disguise cruelties and pity, it is all Paul can do to hold on and try to deserve the scraps of affection Julian now and then deigns to give. That is where the story would remain in a lesser novel, and indeed it is where the relationship often lies in other stories based on Leopold and Loeb; the shy Leopold character so dominated by the Loeb, so lonely and desperate that he will do anything to keep Loeb close, even murder. But this story is not one that lets the reader travel so easily along those well-trod paths.

As the reader eventually find out Paul, our extremely unreliable narrator, quickly begins to worship Julian, but his self-hatred necessitates that Julian remain an idol, an object, and he refuses to acknowledge the pieces of Julian that don’t fit his narrative. As he hoists Julian up on a pedestal Julian senses that he must act a certain way to make Paul happy. Paul expects and finds scorn, malice, he expects to use and be used, and sometimes Julian acquiesces and gives him what he wants.

Though Paul hates pity he seems most comfortable when he can use Julian as a weapon against himself, enabling him to feel self-righteous self-pity and rage against his partner, which he finds more acceptable than genuine friendship. For a while Paul is uncomfortable with affection, does not want Julian to reciprocate in their physical relationship and becomes extremely uncomfortable when Julian says that he loves him. Several months into their relationship they share the following exchange:

“I love you.” Julian spoke without looking at him. He was watching the ceiling fan slice uselessly through the thick air. “I really do. I wish you could tell.”

Paul was startled by the force of his self-disgust. “You shouldn’t say that,” he said before he could stop himself.

Repeatedly Julian pleads for Paul to see his other side, his vulnerability, his love, to believe what he says, but nearly always Paul turns away and decides that Julian is cruel, a liar, toying with him, and always one step ahead instead of just another young, wounded teenager desperate for companionship the same as Paul. This combination of personalities does not take long to spiral towards disaster.

Early in the book Paul is an open wound, hurt, confused and enraged by his father’s recent suicide, and he turns the anger out to the world, finding injustice everywhere and feeling a particular hate towards those who allow violence by purposely ignoring warning signs, or who use the excuse that they were “just following orders.” It is this philosophy that drives the eventual crime, Paul and Julian seeking a victim who is “their pliant and obedient opposite, who carried atrocity inside him like a loaded gun.”

It is interesting to see that while the plot, especially that of the killing, so resembles the details of the Leopold-Loeb case, the underlying motivations and emotions are so markedly different. Like the Franks case their victim is picked up in a car other than their own, with the Leopold character driving. The victim is drugged, hit with a blunt object (a baseball bat wrapped in grip tape replaces the tape-wrapped chisel of 1924) and the body is dumped in a river in a desolate patch of field outside of the city.

Like Parker-Hulme, another killer couple Nemerever cites as inspiration, Paul and Julian see their crime as the one big event in their lives that will change everything, will transform them and their relationship for the better, but of course it fails to. After their murder, when Julian is a nervous wreck, he tries once again to communicate to Paul how he feels. He compliments the small angles of Paul’s face and his laughter which he’s come to love most:

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met…You just keep hating yourself, no matter how much I try to show you that you shouldn’t. I just want you to trust me, I want you to believe me when I tell you-“

Shut up, Julian.”

Still Julian persists in their relationship, until, as the police draw closer, Paul pushes Julian beyond the point his frayed nerves can take and he snaps:

“It’s always been about you,” [Julian] said. “It’s always been about you. Your revenge, your Nuremberg gallows by proxy, your grand philosophical point we were supposed to make so you could keep yourself from feeling the real reason. It was your fucking delusion that if you made yourself strong and cold and heartless and everything you aren’t-if you could just make yourself ‘better,’ if you could destroy every part of you that’s worth loving, then you wouldn’t have to be afraid again. That was what you needed me to do, and I would have done anything god help me, I would have done anything for you. I thought you’d finally trust me if you knew I’d kill for you, and it still isn’t enough, I don’t know why I thought it ever could be enough, nothing ever will be.”

The mirage is broken and for the first time Paul is forced to confront the gap between his image of Julian and their crime and the reality. Despite the very obvious fact that these two are terrible for each other, my affection for Julian and knowing and how little they felt they had outside of the relationship, after this fight I found myself with tears in my eyes, unable to stop reading until I had finished the last page. This book is really masterfully written, and plays on the reader’s expectations of what the characters will be like, until they, like Paul, are forced to face the reality of who these boys are and what they’ve done to each other.

For those interested in the Leopold-Loeb case, it is interesting to see just how removed this is from that case. Julian and Paul are not Loeb and Leopold, they are two kids making their way through very different circumstances than those that formed the earlier duo. While Julian is rich, Paul is working class, they live in Pittsburgh instead of Chicago, in the cynical 70s rather than the roaring 20s, their families have extremely different dynamics, and these external factors have created very real characters so well-formed it seems silly to even compare them to anyone. A police officer even drives this home to Paul, assuring him: “they’re saying the two of you just wanted to see if you were smart enough to get away with it. And-they think I’m crazy…but I don’t think that makes sense. Maybe for some entitled rich kid, but not for you.” It is a Leopold-Loeb type the officer expects to find, though by his saying it, Paul realizes just how far that is from what he and Julian have become.

To cap things off with the trappings of a more normal review: the relationship and the characters are realistic and painfully well-drawn, but it can sometimes make the book a draining read. I found myself putting the book down, too frustrated with Paul to continue, only to pick it back up a few minutes later. To me the pages flew by, but the emotional toll and the increasingly negative head space of the main character makes this a difficult read, especially for someone who can recognize themselves in Paul or recall a relationship similar to the one between he and Julian. With all those caveats in mind, I would heartily recommend this to anyone looking for a dark read about the lies we tell ourselves and the damage we can do to those we love.

Site Updates for August

Thought this would be a nice feature to implement for months when I change things with the site. Thanks to everyone for your continued support and interest.

New Features

The twitter connected to this site is back up, I retweet Leopold-Loeb news (podcasts, publication and play information, etc.) and post daily ‘On this day in history’ posts with news stories from 1924. Follow me @loebandleopold if you’d like.

Page Updates

To the Fiction page I have added descriptions/links for ‘The Future Was Looking Better in the Past’: an experimental theatre/dance piece about the case from 2015 and ‘Heart’s Desire,’ a short film described by the director as a ‘Glam Rock’ exploration of Leopold and Loeb.

To the Non-fiction page I have added links to several Leopold-Loeb podcasts and videos, including the Infamous America podcast series which is currently ongoing.

Posts

I reviewed the 1957 book Little Brother Fate here.

Other News

It seems another Leopold-Loeb adaptation will soon be among us. The book These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever, which will be published in September, has been described by Nemerever’s agent as follows:

“Nemerever’s dark, inspired debut depicts a Leopold and Loeb–like thrill killing committed by two gay Jewish college students in 1970s Pittsburgh. Sensitive Paul Fleischer, an artist, comes from a working-class family and is grieving his father’s recent suicide. He easily falls under the spell of Julian Fromme, a rich psychology student who exudes wit and energy.”

-These Violent Delights, Publishersweekly.com

As soon as I can get my hands on a copy I will review the book and/or go over the ways the book parallels and deviates from the Leopold-Loeb case.

Little Brother Fate: The Power of a Well Written Story

Too often on this blog I find myself going to the easy well of criticism when it comes to media about Leopold and Loeb. So for a change I would like to discuss a book which on paper I should hate as virulently as any other damaging and inaccurate portrayal, but which is actually one of my favorites: Little Brother Fate by Mary Carter-Roberts.

Carter-Roberts was fairly unknown as an author, both then and now, though she published a few books, worked as an editor and wrote many articles for magazines. Her unusual little book, Little Brother Fate has four stories, all inspired by famous crimes, and the Leopold-Loeb segment is titled ‘The Cold and The Dark,’ but instead of keeping the stories together, each chapter switches to another story and the book progresses like that until all are completed. If you’d like to read one story chronologically you have to flip through three chapters from the other stories until you find your destination. I’ve found that book flags are quite helpful to avoid excessive flipping and a chronic sense of getting lost.

The book, published in 1957, within a year of two other novels based on the Leopold Loeb case (Meyer Levin’s Compulsion and James Yaffe’s Nothing But the Night), was likewise inspired by the rise in awareness about the case which accompanied Nathan Leopold’s attempts to get parole around that period.

Despite its odd structure, The Cold and The Dark has many hallmarks of the other stories about the case which came out at the time. It also leans heavily on the Freudian resurgence that was sweeping the nation, traced the nexus of the crime to the way the killers had grown up and the influence their parents and environment had in shaping them, and it too was influenced enough by Leopold’s growing positive publicity to paint Leopold in a more positive light and passive role in the relationship and crime. Yet, alike in so many aspects, The Cold and The Dark makes a distinct niche for itself, usually in pretty terrible ways.

The story follows Thomas Meyer (Loeb) and Herman Levy Jr. (Leopold). The Meyer and Levy families are friends, so every year they throw joint birthday parties for their young sons, who grow up almost as brothers, seeing each other daily and sharing everything. Thomas is described as thin, cold, critical and un-childlike, almost handsome, yet marred by facial irregularities, which at the time would have indicated to the reader there was something amiss. Herman, by contrast is short and stout, with “an almost peasant simplicity.” Their relationship and personalities in relation to each other are described as follows:

“Herman was innately submissive; the need of his nature was to be worked on by another; it went beyond a mere readiness to obey; it became a quiet delight in being used as an instrument of another’s will. Thomas was the opposite side of the equation. He took pleasure in exacting and receiving a submission. He was not a bully. He did not try to force Herman’s obedience. He did not give commands. He simply was the will while Herman was the instrument. That was the balance between the Meyer and Levy sons.”

The book goes on to tell of the imaginary worlds Thomas would form and involve Herman in while they were children, but in adolescence, things start to change. As they enter their teenage years Herman begins looking outside of their relationship, hoping to find a girlfriend like the other boys do. In order to keep Herman closer to him than anyone else Thomas decides that sex, that all-consuming desire which preoccupies him too, will have to be integrated into their relationship so there will be no need to stray.

The two begin a sexual relationship and end up closer than ever, as Thomas starts bringing up the idea of committing a perfect crime. At first it is something to talk about, a philosophical discussion, but soon Thomas starts pressing it into existence, for he has found something which threatens his easy life and his relationship with Herman: the 20 year old college student had fallen in love with an 11 year old boy named Billy Marks.

With Herman unaware of Thomas’ attraction and reason for choosing their victim, Thomas and Herman pick up the unsuspecting Marks, murder him and get caught. The pair are sent to prison, where Thomas begins his mental disintegration, becoming far less intelligent than Herman and obsessed with homosexual sex, until his death in a prison bathroom. Herman, by contrast, lives a perfectly moral life in prison, following the guard’s orders as he had followed Thomas, and while he never develops much of an identity outside of his relationship to Thomas, he seems content to follow the rules and live what from the outside seems a life of atonement.

By all accounts I should hate this book. It highlights most of my least favorite tropes in fiction about Leopold and Loeb: an excessively submissive Leopold character following a dominant Loeb, includes pedophilia, and contrasts the moral saint Leopold in prison with the depravity of Loeb. And yet something about this version just works for me.

I believe most of it comes down to the writing, which can be quite poetic, with long flowing sentences and allusions, mixed with short, chopped sentences as the mood demands. It also introduces many interesting ideas which other fiction either doesn’t touch or doesn’t articulate nearly as well.

The idea that Thomas thinks of Herman and himself as a combined entity rather than individuals and sees his relationship with Herman as both his life and death, his easy safety and comfort and the only way he has been able to relate to the outside world is fascinating. And tying the murder of Marks into that, how Thomas thinks killing Marks is the only way to preserve both his relationship with Thomas and their combined identity reveals how important he finds the comfortable life he’s constructed with Herman. The description of their sexual relationship seems to me fairly progressive for the time, from unsatisfactory fumblings to sustained partnership, the union is described:

“There followed some miserable ‘experiments’. Both boys found them wholly disappointing. It was in their succeeding shaken and bewildered state that they entered on their actual homosexual relation.
The perversion was at once the most wholesome and most damning step in their inseparable histories. It was wholesome – for them – because it was the expression of the only love either of them had known. It was damning – the most damning step of their many steps in the direction of destruction – because it confirmed them in defeat. It was their reminder that they had failed in their undertaking to prove themselves superior to human limitations…he was aware that he and Herman, in their new relationship, were not at all uncommon. He knew of many liaisons – or pairs of queers, if he took one of the less opprobrious names. He and Herman were not proving anything – anything benefiting their superiority that is.”

Thomas’ depression when he can’t get Herman to understand his thoughts regarding the murder is also particularly touching:

“Herman nodded. ‘To kill – just to kill,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I see it now, Tommy, I guess I do.’
Thomas suddenly felt weary. To kill to kill was not his idea at all. He came nearer to meaning to kill not to kill, to kill in order to show that life was not different from death, that, far from being the ultimate value, life had no value, was not even hateful, was nothing at all…He was conscious suddenly that he was very much alone.”

Watching the reasons for the crime develop, while completely outside of the real reasons which led Leopold and Loeb to their crime and based on some very odd, outdated psychology, is still incredibly compelling to me. One of my favorite bits comes directly after they have committed the murder and disposed of the body:

“Thomas dropped Herman at the Levy mansion and went on to his own home. Parting, the two stared into one another’s faces with brief, vivid question. They were not fearful, they were not remorseful, but they were unhappily amazed. It had been so little. Neither dared to say it.”

I have never before encountered a way of conveying the apathy and slight disappointment Leopold and Loeb themselves described at finding that they felt no different after the crime, the realization that being a murderer did not suddenly change them in any way.

Much of the story involves this hubris of Thomas’, his ideas thwarted at every turn. He desires to rise above all other humans and human needs, instead he finds he and Herman have the same needs as everyone else. When he philosophically tries to propose a murder to prove the futility of life he can’t make Herman understand his thinking, and the reader sees that Thomas himself cannot live up to those lofty ideals, though he can conceive of them. He commits murder because he’s afraid of attraction and separation from Herman, not from some lofty philosophical ideal, and destroys himself, his relationship and his future in the process.

While this story does not depict the realities of the Leopold-Loeb case, for me it functions as an indicator of public perceptions of the case at the time and I believe it works perfectly well as a piece of fiction in its own right. For both better and worse it is unafraid to go where other adaptations never do. While modern readers will likely find the psychology bizarre and insulting in parts, especially regarding racism, phrenology and homosexuality, I find The Cold and The Dark refreshingly complex.

A Deja’ Blue Dissection

To anyone who’s spent time on my site this may not come as much of a shock: but I’ve read a lot about Leopold and Loeb. I’ve listened to the musical, I’ve watched the movies, I’ve read every possible book, short story and poem I could get my hands on. And I have to say that Deja’ Blue from Robert D. Rice II’s collection Burn Marks has to be the worst piece of Leopold-Loeb media I’ve ever consumed. The premise is ludicrous, the characterization baffling, the structure bizarre, Rice seems to have invented tell don’t show and the frankly alarming amount of sexism makes this one hell of a read. But they say you can often learn more from a bad story than a good one, so today I’ll be doing a deep dive into the myriad of ways that Deja’ Blue doesn’t work.

The premise of this short story collection (full title: Burn Marks: A Strange Time For Letters) is explained by the author as such: “I assume you have grown leery of media accounts of historical events. Despite their claims of authenticity, my research led me to believe that there had to be more to the stories. I took the facts, as I understood them, presenting the tales in off-angles.”

On its face this seems like great inspiration for a short story collection. Indeed some of the other stories seem to have interesting premises: How would Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother describe her son? What if D.B. Cooper had a daughter who turned him over to the police? What if Lincoln had received a letter that could have stopped him from being assassinated? Whether Rice does anything with these plots is another matter, but at least they could be used to tell an interesting story. For Leopold and Loeb the premise is: what if everything was the same but also there was a girl involved?

Said girl is title character Deja’, our Leopold-Loeb counterpart. She is inherently evil and precocious, the only thing differentiating her from the boys is her gender and that she comes from a poor family. The financial angle is strangely only addressed off-hand and not used as a foil or to show how that would change the treatment Leopold-Loeb received, and the missed opportunities are already stacking up.

The story starts off with a single paragraph under a heading which reads ‘Backstory’ which tells about the early childhood of Deja’ Debreu’, with all the knife loving and ant murder that entailed. Then under a heading titled ‘Chicago’ we get into the main story. Background is given to establish just how lawless the city is, Deja”s birth is described and then it immediately jumps into her being hailed as a genius in school. Why the ‘Backstory’ section wasn’t just integrated in between this birth to school jump is beyond me.

While explaining Deja”s interest in math there comes a great example of the clunky writing style:

“She even had a formula for her meals. First she’d drink all the beverage, then eat the meat, then the vegetables. Three steps that were very weird.”

You’d think if the steps were that weird the reader would be able to understand that without needing to be told.

Now there’s an odd bit here when trying to figure out how old Deja’ is. The book says Deja’ skipped from sixth grade to ninth, and then the last we’re told is that she’s a sophomore in high school and it’s almost her birthday. So I assume she would be in eighth grade if she hadn’t skipped, and around 13 to 14 years old. Keep that in mind as the story progresses.

A few pages in and we get our first introduction to Leopold and Loeb. Deja’ is walking in a park and there are many heavy handed allusions to bad omens coming her way. This is an extremely common device the book uses, the reader is hit with obvious foreshadows of doom on almost every page. After she ignores all the black squirrels in her path Deja’ sees them: “frolicking on one of the many mounds of dry earth were two boys. They wrestled, laughing, grabbing each other.” That must be the only time in my life I’ve ever seen Leopold or Loeb described as ‘frolicking.’

Interested in these jovial teens ruining their suits, she approaches, they stop and Loeb is instantly attracted to her. He asks several times why she’s staring at them and she eventually replies: “I’d like to stay but that would prevent me from leaving.” He’s blown away by the “quick wit” of this remark.

The exchange goes on, every sentence of dialogue interspersed by several more explaining each character’s emotions. Memorable instances include Loeb calling Leopold his falcon, prompting Leopold to flap his arms and shuffle in a circle, and Loeb deciding Deja’ is a superman after a few sentences of conversation. With that, Deja’ is in the fold and after a few more short, pointless scenes, (why did I have to read a page long scene of Leopold and Loeb playing ping pong? What did it add?) the reader sees Loeb and Leopold arguing about whether to pick Deja’ up before the murder and we, unfortunately, get a perspective shift on that cliffhanger.

I say unfortunately, but really this is what the story should have been. This half explores Jack Dillon, the police officer who “every boy in the state wanted to grow up to be.” He’s jaded, his ex-wife has a restraining order against him, he flirts with the coffee shop waitress and fights with his boss but gets results. Almost the rest of the story focuses on him trying to track down the murderers and figure out who is telling the truth between Leopold, Loeb and Deja’. There’s interesting material for a detective story there, but there’s one problem: I hate him. If you need an example, here’s why!

After running out of a coffee shop without tipping the unnamed waitress he’s been flirting with he runs back in, drops loose change into her shirt pocket, licks his lips at her “smiling with lust,” says she’s good and runs out. The waitresses’ response? “She blushed, knowing that if there were real life heroes, Jack would be hers; she marveled as he left, ‘Wow, what a guy.’

Irredemable.

Break for another funny bit of writing: “Jack suspected that a crime had been committed when hysterical parents telephoned the police precinct, screaming that their son should’ve been home hours ago.” Truly he’s a super cop to have picked up on so subtle a clue.

We follow this investigation with Jack finding the glasses near the culvert, his big toe cracking with anger, before he meets his superior, Robert Hatchet, who is figuring out the specifics in a massive threat and bribery scam to ensure his son has a good spot on his little league baseball team. Another stellar exchange happens:

“Jack removed his jacket, letting it droop at his side before proceeding to the water cooler.”
“‘You can use my coat rack,’ Robert offered.”
“Jack tossed the jacket, missing the coat rack, sending the jacket to the window ledge where it nearly fell out.
“‘I hate coat racks.'”
“Jack stopped walking to eye a girly magazine on Robert’s desk, adding, ‘I didn’t say all racks.'”

We’re treated to several pages of non sequitur arguing before Jack flies to New York and connects Leopold to the glasses. When Jack says Leopold and Bobby Franks were both wealthy, Hatchet “started seeing a pattern develop.” Again. Super cops.

Jack interviews Leopold and then Deja’ who immediately starts flirting with him, deciding she’d like to lose her virginity to him because “his commanding, often overpowering presence was what she had read men were supposed to be.” I reiterate, she’s probably 14, 16 at best, if she’s a high school senior and that was just never mentioned.

She has a laughable “sparring match” with Jack, where the author tells us she’s extremely clever but there’s no evidence in the text, and he lets her go. Soon after she calls and says the boys did it and came to pick her up with Bobby’s dead body in the backseat, but she declined to go with them because she didn’t want to get blood on her clothes. Why she didn’t just skip town, why she didn’t come up with a better alibi, why she’d connect herself to the murder and make herself complicit at all, never explained.

She is tried and found not guilty because the court is so beguiled by her school girl innocence and massive intelligence. Jack is relieved because he’s in love. When she’s legal they get married. Jack gets stabbed, Deja’ runs away, Jack pleads to the tooth fairy (yes, the mythical creature) to bring her back and it ends with the chapter ‘The Rumor’ stating that if you want to find Deja’ you must simply follow the trail of “her loves, her hate and the blood.”

And that is Deja’ Blue.

I’m not even going to cover authenticity. It’s inaccurate. The crime, the investigation, the characterization are all so far in left field that without the names it’d be barely recognizable. Deja is able to tell by looking at them that Loeb is the stronger and more controlling of the two, and let’s throw it in a line about how he’s attracted to Deja’ because all the male characters except Leopold have to be. Leopold is a follower, pathetic, simpering, willing to do anything for Loeb. So your average Leopold-Loeb characterization with some odd quirks. But I have to ask: why tell this story in this way?

If Rice just wanted a twist on the usual narrative why not just write the story from Jack’s perspective? To my knowledge there’s never been a fictional Leopold-Loeb story told from the point of view of detectives. There are parts in Compulsion told from a cub reporter’s pov, and The Grindle Nightmare has two people investigating murders but they’re just random doctors, not police officers. As much as I hate his smug, sexist, everybody-loves-him face, Jack makes sense as a main character. It would shift the sometimes ambiguous protagonist roles which Leopold and Loeb often achieve when fiction focuses on them and ground things firmly in the realm of good guy vs bad guy.

With Jack’s characterization the way it is you could even make the case for two morally grey sides fighting each other, one outside of the law, the other inside, but are they really all that different? Jack’s a former wife-beater, he’s into teenage girls and he’s constantly aching to break the law, and here he is lionized by chasing two murderers, who are also evil yes, but with one slip up, how easily Jack could be in their place. This seems to be part of the text, Jack is often admired by others because they’ve read or heard that that’s how men should be, I assume making reference to toxic masculinity and how that’s often reinforced and made to seem attractive. But the way it’s written it’s just horrible to read his perspective and that idea is especially muddy when Deja’ one ups him in the end and he becomes her victim, obsessed with getting her back, which wouldn’t be a problem if you ignored her completely, just focusing on Jack, Leopold and Loeb.

Or if you wanted to take things in a different direction and you insisted on adding in Deja, you’d really have to talk about the similarities and differences between her, Leopold and Loeb. If the theme is about inherent vs. learned evil then some backstory on all three is needed, if she’s there to showcase how gender/sexuality/wealth/ethnicity influenced the case then talk about it. (If you’re looking for narratives which actually explore some of these themes, see Native Son by Richard Wright or Witness by Karen Hesse).

Instead of delving into anything interesting the story remains on the surface. Deja’ changes nothing about Leopold and Loeb’s story, they meet her shortly beforehand, are not influenced by her and the murder, trial and sentencing are portrayed exactly the same as they really happened. Themes often found in Leopold-Loeb material: redemption, the morality of capital punishment, the psychology of developing murderers, wealth as a corrupter, none of that is touched on. This is just the story of a teenage femme fatale and a corrupt cop with Leopold and Loeb pasted on at the edge for set dressing.

Thank you for sticking with me, and if anyone’s read the other stories from this collection, please tell me if they’re any good. I don’t have the courage to tackle them myself.

Funny Games: The Unknowable Killer

Seeing as it’s October, I thought I would look at the only horror movie inspired by the Leopold-Loeb case: Funny Games.

The plot of the movie is that two young men come over to a family’s vacation home, terrorize and murder them before they move on to their next victims. Released in Austria in 1997, the movie got a shot for shot American remake in 2007 filmed by the same director, but with an English speaking cast. As the two movies are on paper almost identical, I will not distinguish between them during this analysis.

In many ways Funny Games is both a horror movie and an indictment against horror movies. Director Michael Haneke famously made the movie because he was disgusted that people would go to the movies and cheer at bloodshed in modern horror slashers. Haneke used meta-textual elements and long, uncomfortable scenes of devastation to force the audience to feel the hopelessness of the victims. At one point one of the killers bets the family that they will all be dead at nine the following morning. He then turns to the camera, looking directly at the audience and asks: “What do you think? You think they stand a chance? You’re on their side, aren’t you? Who are you betting on?”

While on its surface the movie may not appear to have any relationship to the Leopold-Loeb case, many involved with the movie said it was used for inspiration, including actor Michael Pitt, who played one of the killers in the 2007 version. The inspiration taken by the director and actors becomes clearest when considering that in that same way that horror movies are broken down, so are the tropes associated with Leopold-Loeb.

The two killers are superficially similar to the tropes of Leopold and Loeb commonly seen in fiction: They are young, seem to be highly educated, well-mannered, rich, and there is a more active, sadistic leader with a loyal but seemingly less evil follower. As Leopold and Loeb presented themselves in 1924, the young men in Funny Games rarely get agitated or truly angry or scared, spending most of the movie in complete control of their situation and victims, with an unhurried assurance that everything will go as planned for them.

In a particularly revealing scene, one killer explains to the family why his companion is doing this: his mother divorced his father because she wanted her son to herself, introducing some juicy Freudian trauma. “It’s why he’s gay and a criminal,” the killer explains. He then takes it back, that wasn’t the real reason, it’s actually because he’s white trash from a horrible incestuous family, no, he’s actually jaded by the emptiness of existence. After the explanations he asks: “You happy now? Or do you want another version?” The point becomes clear: the reason is unknowable and probably doesn’t matter anyway. The killers do not even seem to use their real names, calling each other Paul and Peter, Tom and Jerry, Beavis and Butt-head, rendering even their identities unimportant. All the origin stories for horror villains and the myriad of hypothetical explanations suggested during the Leopold-Loeb trial do not actually matter in this moment. What matters to the family (and likely the family of Bobby Franks) is only one thing: the violence these contradictory young men can do.

This makes the film almost unique in the canon of fiction inspired by Leopold-Loeb, which so often focuses on the psychology behind the killers. Some versions don’t even cover the murder at all (see Homo Superiors and The Dialogues of Leopold and Loeb), often the build-up and attempt to explain the motivations becomes more important than the act itself. Yet Funny Games makes the case that this kind of speculation is useless. While people try to decipher the motivations and psychology behind the killers, they themselves are content to end the movie making casual chit-chat about the nature of reality and fiction as they dispatch the last family member and sail off to their next game.

In a film created to criticize the trends of modern horror and horror audiences, Funny Games also succeeds in offering an alternate look at the ways Leopold and Loeb have been represented in fiction. For nearly 100 years these two real people have been fictionalized, with new artists every decade trying to put their own spin and interpretation on their motivations. Perhaps Funny Games brings up an important point about the trend of humanizing and asking understanding of killers, when the horrific actions they commit are what is truly important.

For the Thrill of it: One More Sensationalized Look at 1924

Long long ago in the summer of 2012 I thought to myself: ‘Hey, you remember that documentary you watched last year about those two murderers? Kinda want to find out more about that.’ A trip to my local library put Simon Baatz’s For the Thrill of it: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago into my sweaty little hands. Walking home with my find I didn’t know that the book would plunge me into an obsession that would eventually send me searching in archives from California to Massachusetts, introduce me to dozens of friends and inspire me to write a book of my own.

No, on that fine summer day I was blissfully ignorant of the future, and was simply enthralled as Baatz’s book led me down the path of the fascinating story of Leopold and Loeb. While I thank Baatz for being my first in-depth introduction to the case, after learning more and doing my own research, I’m sorry to say that his book doesn’t hold up.

For some context, For the Thrill of it was written by history professor Simon Baatz and published in 2008. It is currently the most popular nonfiction book about the case and is fairly well regarded. This is in part due to Baatz’s self-stated mission to reach a wider audience outside of just historians. To achieve this he used novelistic narrative techniques while also doing into a deep exploration into the lawyers and legal issues wrapped up in the case. Many reviewers responded positively to his effort, especially praising the meticulous and exhaustive research Baatz did-which is how I know these reviewers don’t know much about the case themselves.

Reading the book after having some background of my own, the flaws in Baatz’s approach became apparent immediately. On the very first page appears this sentence: “Jacob Franks was proud of his four children: Josephine had been accepted at Wellesley College for the fall, and Jack, a junior at the Harvard School, was planning to attend Dartmouth College. Jacob Jr. was the youngest child, still a student in grade school, but already showing signs of academic promise.” Bobby and Jacob Sr. are then described and the thread continues, describing the meal the family was having on May 21st when Bobby failed to come home:

“It was now after seven o’clock. The youngest son, Jacob Jr., had finished eating and was fidgeting, anxious to leave the table. His father let him go. Flora, Josephine and Jacob remained at the table talking; they could no longer pretend that Bobby was delayed at a friend’s house.”

From a narrative standpoint it makes perfect sense to start the book with this scene. It establishes the victim, the growing fear and tension as the family begins to realize that something is wrong, and makes readers care for them before we get to know the killers. The only problem is this is not a novel, yet this dinner scene is completely fictional. It’s understandable why a reader wouldn’t suspect that-it is possible that the Franks family gave a detailed account of the night their son went missing to the police and that Baatz is working from that statement. He sources lots of other documents from the time, so it’s hardly a stretch to think this scene came from somewhere other than Baatz’s imagination. But there is a very easy way to spot that this is a Baatz flight of fancy: the mentions of the youngest son, Jacob Franks Jr.

You see, Jacob Franks Jr. isn’t real. The Franks family had three children, not four, and Bobby Franks was the youngest, as a quick look at census records confirms. Where Baatz got confused was he saw Jacob Jr. mentioned several times in the newspapers from 1924, and along with Jack, Josephine and Bobby, took this to be a fourth sibling. But of course newspapers (especially those from 1924) were very frequently inaccurate, and occasionally newspapers would print Jack Franks as Jacob Franks Jr.- reporters assuming wrongly that ‘Jack’ was a nickname rather than his full birth name. What this gaff makes clear is that Baatz was making things up, and with this kind of blatant inaccuracy on the first few pages, it did not bode well for the accuracy of the rest of the story.

As could be expected, the entirety of the book is filled with repetitions of this problem; though the book is marketed as nonfiction, where there was no information about how a person was feeling or what they were doing Baatz fills things in with his own story, without informing the reader he is doing so. He also uses doctored photos (doctored in the 1920s but still doctored and represented by Baatz as truthful), gets facts wrong and quotes from untrustworthy sources. But with the amount of actual quotes from transcripts, un-doctored photos and legitimate facts he also includes it can be very tricky to try to interpret what is real and what is a Baatz-creation unless you are extremely knowledgeable about the case.

It is not hard to see why Baatz resorted to this method of partial fictionalization. Though he is so often praised for the incredible research he did on this book, when you look into his bibliography it is disturbingly sparse. He cites the trial transcripts, confessions, psychiatric reports and newspapers from the time, but I was shocked to realize that he left the two biggest archival collections for information on Leopold and Loeb (Leopold’s papers in the Chicago History Museum and Elmer Gertz’s collection on the case at Northwestern University) untouched. Other authors who have written about the case did interviews to fill in gaps and get other perspectives, but Baatz neglected to do even this. The transcripts, confessions and psychiatric reports have been published independently many times and are now largely available online, and the newspapers are available on microfilm in many large libraries around the country. Anyone with time, internet access and a library card could do the research Baatz did. When looking at the evidence in context, his extensive research seems more like the bare minimum.

In addition to doing scant research, the book also feels somewhat unfinished, as it focuses heavily on the crime and sentencing hearing and gives very little information about Leopold and Loeb before or after 1924 and includes almost nothing about their families. When Hal Higdon wrote his book on the case, The Crime of the Century, in 1975, he was unable to write much about Leopold’s later life because Leopold’s widow threatened to sue him if he did so. Baatz has no such excuse. While Higdon managed to write four chapters about their prison time and two about Leopold’s life after parole, Baatz dedicates only one chapter to the time after the hearing-including in that five pages on Leopold’s life after his release from Stateville. For context, he spent 59 pages going over the backgrounds of Clarence Darrow and Robert Crowe-the main defense and prosecution lawyers in the 1924 trial.

In the context to a case like this, with dozens of non fiction books, fictional adaptations, as well as hundreds of articles, dissertations and podcasts discussing the case, one more non fiction book which involves no new research and covers no new ground seems totally redundant. Without exploring more into their pasts, futures or even giving a new interpretation on the events of 1924, why write the book at all? As historian Paula Fass phrases it in her wonderful review: “This book digs up the story in order to rehash a sensational case, not in order to understand it better or provide us with any kind of guidance as general readers.”

Baatz’s book, though I am grateful to it for sending me on my journey, is now almost impossible for me to get through. To anyone looking to get into the case I will always recommend Hal Higdon’s far superior Crime of the Century instead.

Evil Summer: Slaves, Masterminds, and Terrible Nicknames

What to do when you want to write a book of nonfiction, but the urge remains to broadcast the moods, movements and even thoughts of the subjects to make them seem more real. Luckily, creative nonfiction is able to step in and allows an author the freedom to fill in the gaps pesky reality often leaves blank, so they may tell a more engrossing and compelling story. This genre has seen an upsurge in recent decades, with everything from cancer memoirs to sports biographies manufacturing conversations, events and motivations to offer the reader a more satisfying and cohesive narrative. This is certainly the case in John Theodore’s Evil Summer: Babe Leopold, Dickie Loeb, and the Kidnap-Murder of Bobby Franks.

In the plethora of nonfiction books written about Leopold and Loeb, Evil Summer offers something a little different. It weighs in at a slim 181 pages and the structure of the book is somewhat unique. Other than short introduction and epilogue, the book has only three main chapters, the longest nearly half the length of the entire work. These are grouped under the intriguing titles: Fantasies, Realities, Apologia, Justice and Passages. Whether you’re a Leopold-Loeb historian or lay person, anyone may have trouble anticipating exactly what they would find in each of those sections.

The differences continue within, as one is hit with a shock almost instantly when you realize that Theodore is sticking with his subtitle, he really is going to refer to Leopold and Loeb as ‘Babe’ and ‘Dickie’ almost exclusively for the book’s entire duration. This was added perhaps to try and emphasize the childish natures of the boys and call them what family and psychiatrists did, but it really doesn’t seem to add much. Though perhaps it was more because Theodore seems to be a fan of nicknames in general, often referring to Bobby Franks as ‘Baby,’ Clarence Darrow as ‘The Old Lion’ and, most bizarrely, to Robert Crowe as ‘The Pirate.’

Once a reader gets used to these choices they are confronted with perhaps the book’s most distinctive feature: Theodore’s decision to include bits of what he supposed Leopold and Loeb might be thinking in certain situations. These sections are differentiated from the regular text by being in italics, though not always in first person. As Theodore explains in his text: “The italicized portions in this book represent the fantasies, dreams, and thoughts of Richard Loeb and Nathan F. Leopold Jr.” These passages are usually extrapolated from the psychiatric reports and used to attempt to place the reader directly in the heads of the murderers. They heavily emphasize the psychiatrist’s theories that Loeb thought of himself as a master criminal and Leopold imagined he was Loeb’s powerful, adoring slave.

While I can see why Theodore decided to apply this method, I think his results are somewhat lackluster. Most of the thoughts he placed in the minds of the killers could have just as easily been stated outright and sourced to the psychiatric reports, rather than in the form of rambling and repetitive third person inner-monologues. These passages also begin to die out after the first two chapters, disappearing completely during the hearing and aftermath. This drop in creativity can likewise be seen in the book’s structure, which starts a bit experimental, jumping between time periods and perspectives, before settling to tell the hearing more or less linearly with little flourish.

Other than those peculiarities, the book is not unlike most others on the case that have come before and since. There are a few inaccuracies, as there are bound to be in any work of nonfiction, but the story is told concisely and fairly well. Theodore, with his training as a journalist, had an ear for a good story and told it with plenty of details and compassion. But it is that journalistic background that connects to my biggest problem with this book: the sources.

Aside from a few interviews and a handful of archival tidbits, the sources cited in this book come almost exclusively from the Hulbert-Bowman psychiatric reports, the confessions, trial transcripts, Leopold’s autobiography and the newspapers. Now this is fine on it’s surface-most books don’t tend to go much deeper than that-but the problem lies in Theodore treating all of these sources equally. Quotes published in notoriously unreliable newspapers from the 20s are treated the same as direct quotes pulled from transcripts, and large chunks from Leopold’s autobiography are reprinted and included as part of the narrative. This uncritical presentation of heavily suspect sources leads to a more colorful, but ultimately less reliable overview on the case.

There are other concerns of course; as usual almost no time (only 2 and a half pages) is spent discussing what happened after Leopold and Loeb went to prison. If someone is only interested in the crime and trial, I suppose that’s alright, but if you’re looking for a deeper understanding, this is not the place to find it. There are also omissions that lead to unsettling conclusions, especially regarding the castration of Charles Ream.

Ream alleged that the pair drugged and castrated him one night, this crime is described in the book along with a fictional scene of the boys going to cabarets together before the event took place (this is false-they were attending a party in Leopold’s home at the time). When Ream identified them after they had confessed Theodore relayed that scene, but failed to give the context that Ream heavily changed his story. He also failed to mention the police officers who later testified in Leopold and Loeb’s favor when the case came to court, and a lack of any evidence tying them to the crime.

As one Amazon reviewer made clear, not including any follow up (on top of seeming just a bizarre oversight on the part of police for not charging them with the additional crime) makes it seem that they did castrate Ream, when it is very likely that they did not.

Still, these are relatively minor flaws, and if you are looking for a quick, readable introduction or refresher on the case, you could do much worse than picking up this book. Just keep in mind when you’re reading that it sometimes dances that thin line called creative nonfiction that exists between historical fiction and the truth.