Meyer Levin Levin, Meyer

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Levin, Meyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Levin, Meyer 1905–

Levin, a journalist, novelist, and playwright living in both Israel and America, dramatizes in his fiction the modern Jewish experience in the Old World and the New. In his nonfiction, too, he writes on aspects of Judaism. Two of his important contributions are his collected Hasidic tales and his translations of Sholem Asch's stories. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The abduction, murder, and mutilation of Bobby Franks in 1924 by two brilliant college students named Loeb and Leopold sent an awful thrill of outrage through the nation.

The two young men came of distinguished and wealthy Chicago families. Their crime seemed utterly without motive, without the mitigating circumstances of anger or hatred or envy or even malice. It was, by their own description, an act of "pure" criminality, a demonstration of their freedom from the ordinary moral restraints of ordinary men.

The avowed purpose of Meyer Levin's "Compulsion" is to answer the anguished question of motive—the question which must have corroded the hearts and minds of the three families involved; the question which was too glibly answered by the prosecutor in terms of sex perversion and economic gain.

Mr. Levin describes his book as a "contemporary historical novel" and sets about giving us, in a thinly disguised form, the story of the two young men whom he calls Artie Strauss and Judd Steiner. Mr. Levin himself flits through the book, a contemporary of the two young men (as he actually was in real life). Mr. Levin's personal intrusion in the story is a serious distraction. Mr. Levin, the novelist, is a much more sophisticated man than the nineteen-year-old newspaper cub who stumbled on one important clue after another. The duality of the narrator-novelist does not make a complex story any simpler to follow. But fascinating it is, almost every word of it. This is a story out of Mr. Levin's heart and mind and experience, and the fiction and fact flow easily and readily together, though not so readily as to make it too difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

The pictures of Clarence Darrow for the defense, the emotional climate of the community, the shock and dismay and despair of the families of the two young men are all vividly drawn by the author. He has also managed to catch something of the witless bravado, the inept strutting of the two "super criminals" in such a way as to tell the reader, who was not there in 1924, that this was the way they were, this was the way they behaved in police custody. In physical details Mr. Levin carries us with great sweeps of conviction to believe everything he says. But what of the motive? What lay behind the gruesome crime?

Mr. Levin has much to say about the backgrounds of the two young men, the influence of governesses and doting parents, sexual symbolism, the half-baked philosophy of the precocious. But too many of Mr. Levin's explanations sound like do-it-yourself psychoanalysis and the net effect suggests that Mr. Levin's conclusions are no better than those drawn by observers of the two killers thirty-two years ago. Nonetheless, it is a graphic and absorbing reconstruction of an infamous crime.

David Karp, "In Search of a Motive," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 27, 1956, p. 16.

In a way, "Compulsion" is a frightening book because the author has such an uncanny ability to make the dark recesses of perverted abnormality seem so thoroughly logical. In this book we come face to face with what happens when human beings get the idea that intellectual advancement can become superior to ideals; that morality is purely a question of expediency; that the ego is supreme….

The writing shows the hand of a master. Despite the fact that the reader who is familiar with the history of the case (and what reader is not?) knows the outcome, Mr. Levin manages to fill this book with sustained suspense. This is a masterly...

(The entire section is 4,023 words.)