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COMPULSION
by Meyer Levin
Fig Tree Press, April 2015
480 pages
$15.95
ISBN: 1941493025


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Although almost sixty years have passed since COMPULSION was first published, the reissue of Meyer Levin's classic 1956 novel proves that insightful analysis and great writing do not age. This work of fiction is based on the infamous crime of kidnapping and murder perpetrated by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two arrogant, wealthy Jewish college students in 1920's Chicago. Leopold and Loeb, called Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss in the book, believed they could commit the perfect crime. Precociously brilliant, they were convinced that they were also cleverer than anyone else. Levin recreates their environment, their psychology and their fate, introducing the literary world to the sort of crime writing that paved the way for works like Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD.

This reissue begins with valuable insights. In both the foreword by Marcia Clark, a mystery writer and attorney, and the personal introduction by the author's son Gabriel Levin, the reader is given an overview of how the book was written, its import in the history of this sort of writing, and how it relates to our modern sensibilities. Levin had a unique relationship to the actual story, having gone to the same college as the two perpetrators and having worked on this story as a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He calls himself Sid Silver in the book.

The first half of the book explores the crime and how the two young men are linked to it. Levin covers themes that resonate for the reader today. Attitudes toward homosexuality are important in this work and the relationship between the two young men is a strong focus. Judd seems to have had unacknowledged feelings for his friend Archie, which may have been a factor in his desire to participate in the crime. Levin wrote openly and clearly about homosexuality in the 1950s, at a time when its meaning in society was quite different from the way it is looked upon today. The earlier time period he was writing about, the 1920s, had an even more pejorative take on the issue, with the media freely referring to homosexuals as "perverts." Since both the victim and the perpetrators were Jewish, anti-Semitism is also explored by the author.

The second half of the book focuses on the trial and then on the aftermath for Sid Silver and his life. Since the accused were from wealthy backgrounds, the best defense attorney of the day was hired to defend them. He is called Jonathan Wilk in the book, but in real life he was Clarence Darrow. His brilliant defense used ideas that were new to the criminal justice system at that time, but which are taken for granted today. He called in experts in psychology and psychiatry and attempted to show that the young men had been temporarily insane. He also argued forcefully against the death penalty.

FigTree Press, dedicated to publishing works that illuminate the American Jewish experience, has done a great service to the readers of today by reissuing COMPULSION. The book may be read by modern readers for its excellent writing as well as for its mesmerizing crime story. It also has deeper repercussions for the events of the 20th Century. Meyer Levin, according to his son, was greatly moved by the Holocaust and the related topic of how humans can lose their humanity and do evil. Meyer was intrigued too, by the concept of personal morality, which he explores here.

The facts of the case and the fate of the perpetrators may be well known to the reader, and I will not give away any more facts in this review, although the reasons for spending time in the pages of COMPULSION are far greater than merely finding out what happened to Judd/Leopold and Archie/Loeb. The details of the case, Levin's skill in creating suspense, and his ability to relate this tale to the important events of the 20th Century, make this a unique and unforgettable read.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, May 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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