By Meyer Levin
Fig Tree Books, 2015
456 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Destiny Guerrero
In Compulsion, originally published in 1956, Meyer Levin strives to answer a question that has lingered with him since the murder of 14-year-old Robert Franks in 1924: why did these two boys, his own schoolmates, kill this boy? As Levin indicates in his preface, the narrator, Sid Singer, is a stand-in for Levin himself, just as Arties Straus and Judd Steiner are stand-ins for Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, the two young men who committed the murder. This knowledge remains at the forefront in Singer’s prelude to the novel:
In some instances, the question will arise: Is this true; did this actually happen?… In the last analysis I suppose it will have to be understood that what I tell is the reality for me. For particularly where emotions must be dealt with, there is no finite reality; our idea of actuality always has to come through someone, and this is the reality through me.
Compulsion is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the week following the murder and looks into the strained relationship between Judd and Artie, both alternating between feelings of grandeur and of crisis. Sometimes they turn to each other, and other times they turn against each other. During this week, the possibility of Judd and Artie getting away with murder is pressed, and freedom is in sight even when they’re in police custody. It isn’t until certain evidence is uncovered by Singer and revealed by the Steiner’s chauffer that the boys confess.
The second part of Compulsion focuses on the trial and the preparation leading up to it: specifically, the psychiatrists’ meetings with and evaluations of the mental states Judd and Artie. The draw here is that the defense attorneys aren’t trying to prove that the boys are innocent, since they’ve already confessed to the murders, but that they had been psychologically predisposed to commit the crime due to traumas experienced in childhood. More than that, they must try to do so without indicating in any way that the boys are insane. Their aim: to avoid the death penalty.
Levin wastes no time in drawing parallels between the murderers and others, especially in their ability to suppress emotions. Judd Steiner perceives emotions as a weakness, a thought Sid seems to echo upon first viewing—and identifying—the body, because a “newspaperman had to take death casually.” The lack of grief or repressed emotion is also seen in the father of the murdered boy, and Sid notes that “his remarkable control seemed in some obscure way linked to a pattern of that lay beneath the entire crime, a pattern of feelings pushed down so that nothing could show. In him, and in the criminals too.”
At first, it seemed that Levin does a great job keeping the Judd or Artie sections strictly Judd and Artie. We know he’s speculating, as he has admitted in the preface, but it reads more intimately than that. It isn’t until the entrance of a love triangle, when feelings develop between Judd and Ruth (Sid’s girl), that the narrative begins to break. Lines such as, “I see Judd then, starting for his date with Ruth…” remind us that we are not truly in Judd’s head, but in Levin’s. These moments, however, do not disrupt the narrative, but serve to make us aware of its structure in a pleasant way, similar to a frame that has been chosen for how it interacts with an art piece.
A particularly memorable moment arises after Judd’s connection with Ruth, as he starts to believe their relationship is changing him: “And it seems to Judd that he has the power to make the whole deed with Artie turn nonexistent. It seems to him that he must somehow have drawn back that deed, erased it, erased that entire night from the schedule of time.” There is confusion inherent in these lines: which deed does Judd wish to erase? At this point in the novel, we can’t be sure which crime is the one most feared by society: the murder, or the homosexuality. Indeed, at times the characters themselves struggle to intertwine the two.
Anyone who has read or is familiar with The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland will not be disappointed by the parallels drawn up between the trial and the one portrayed in Compulsion. The use of personal letters and philosophical beliefs to incriminate a person is a method followed by those persecuting Judd and Artie. In the trial of Oscar Wilde, the homosexual as a person is defined. In the trial of these boys, it is a condition used to explain, to a degree, how these boys were capable of committing the murder.
Throughout the novel the narrative pulls the reader along, line after line. There are slow moments, though, and they toe the line of excruciating: the closing remarks made by the state and defense attorneys span more than forty pages—about twenty pages of monologue each to Horns, the state attorney, and Wilk, the defense attorney. That’s a lot of space for one person to be talking. It must be noted, though, that for the trial Levin tried to follow the official records as closely as possible. Even this, however, isn’t enough to negate lines beautifully written, such as:
That was the sad part of doing things all by yourself, on your own. You lost them. You really needed someone else to be in a thing with you: so that the deed stayed alive between you.
The novel’s purpose was never to get at the Truth of the crime, but for Levin to discover his own truth in relation to the crime. As far as the psychology goes, it all seems believable, like the start of something big in the field. But what shown through for me were the smaller moments, between the characters, when truth can just be a five-letter word. Ultimately, this is a novel that can, and has, withstood the test of time. It’s a story experienced in 1924, published in 1956, and will be republished in 2015, completely unaffected by time.