Sunday, March 24, 2013

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Chicago

In the author's notes of For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Chicago, Simon Baatz writes, "I have attempted, therefore, to tell this story in a literary style. It is a narrative history that aims to recapture the drama of the events that it describes."

In this, Baatz  resoundingly succeeeds.

Which is no small feat given the extensive attention he pays to the underlying (and largely ignored) story stemming from infamous murder of young Robert "Bobby" Franks: the beginnings of the nature versus nurture debate in criminal psychology.

Baatz found himself fascinated by the dichotomy presented by the dazzling Clarence Darrow, Leopold and Loeb's defense attorney (yes, that Darrow, of the "Scopes monkey trial" fame) and Robert Crowe.

Darrow is a "determinist" of sorts, going on a philosophical journey throughout his career that shapes his ultimate belief that crime is the result of a person's environment and biological functions beyond their control.

Crowe, on the other hand, believes that every crime is a conscience act that the only prevention for crime is deterence fostered by harsh sentencing.

Darrow is as passionately opposed to the death penalty as Crowe is for it, and so a clash of legal titans begins.

It's pretty heady stuff, and one imagines that even the hordes of curious masses that had to be cleared out of the hallway and from blocking the street in front of the criminal court building may have found the academic research presented as evidence by the attorneys tedious in the hot, humid courtroom the summer of the trial.

Yet Baatz takes the reader through it-- and the rest of the trial -- fairly quickly, with a deft touch for paraphrasing and quote selection.

Using everything from trial transcripts, Leopold's autobiography and hundreds of newspaper accounts, Baatz  gives in-depth explanations of Darrow and Crowe, the historical climate in which they worked and enough social, political and media context to frame their respective decisions and strategies well.

And that's just the second half of the book, which is no less well-written or captivating than the first half, which breathes so much life into the catchphrase "Leopold and Loeb" that the reader truly feels as though they've gotten to know the two young men.

Long before the "Courtroom" section of the book, Baatz applies the same skill for using meticulous research to tell a compelling story in walking the reader through Leopold and Loeb's lives and the times during which they lived.

After reading this book, those names will never be a two-dimensional alliterative reference to famous criminals again.

Again, Baatz gives enough explanation for the reader to fell comfortable within the historical framework but not so much as to wander off into interesting -- though ultimately irrelevant -- historical asides.

This is a book I found riveting as a reporter, former law student and lover of the true crime genre. It can be enjoyed on many levels and is even accented with arresting photographs of everyone involved during various points of the saga.

"My approach to writing this book reflects a contemporary concern of professional historians that their work should reach a wider audience," Baatz writes in the same notes.

It is hard to imagine how this book could fail to do, as everyone from a casual reader to a forensic psychologist would find at least one section in the book well-written and worthwhile.

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