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.’
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.