Thursday, 12 October 2017

FOR THE THRILL OF IT: Leopold, Loeb and the murder that shocked jazz age Chicago, by Simon Baatz

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've always been interested in and had just watched a documentary about this case, so sought it out.

Genre: True Life Crime Story

Most people know about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two college boys from affluent Chicago families who murdered young Bobby Franks just 'for the thrill of it', to see if they could plan the perfect murder and get away with it.  The fascinating element, I think, is the 'why', and this book gives a detailed background, in which we discover that Leopold was a bright, hardworking but socially inept boy who became infatuated with the feckless, hard drinking, handsome and popular Loeb.  Their relationship appears to have been one of those 'perfect storms', in which the intense, lonely Leopold allowed Loeb to turn his fantasies into reality.  Loeb had been obsessed with detective stories from a young age, and started off his secret criminal career by committing petty vandalism, then discovered that, in Leopold, he'd found the ideal partner with whom to carry out the ultimate crime.

Bobby Franks, the victim.

The background about Leopold and Loeb's personalities was detailed and insightful.  Baatz has provided similar intricate detail about the prosecutor and defender, too; I understand that they are important to the story, as Robert Crowe was determined they should hang, whereas Clarence Darrow was equally determined to save their lives and was fiercely against the death penalty, but I felt that these chapters could have been chopped down a little; I got the impression that Baatz had done months and months of research for this book and was hell bent on including every single bit of it. 

More interesting is William White's analysis of the boys' personalities and fantasies, and how each allowed the other's to take shape.  I felt I learned more key points about them from this shorter section than from the earlier individual histories; it made more sense.

What this book lacked was the atmosphere of the era.  'Jazz age' Chicago is mentioned only in the title; I would have liked to know more about the college life of Loeb and his friends, for instance, to arrive at more of a sense of place and time.  Other reviews have said that it is too much like a newspaper report; I felt that, too.

Near the end of the book is much discussion about Crowe, Darrow and the death penalty, and also an account of how prison life treated Leopold and Loeb.  Loeb was murdered by a fellow inmate in 1935, but Leopold was eventually granted parole in the 1950s.  I found this last chapter most interesting.  The story ends at 72%, and the rest of the book is taken up with an author's note, sources, etc.

Nathan Leopold shortly before his death in 1971

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