Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Compulsion, Meyer Levin, Simon and Schuster, 1956, 495 pp

 Compulsion, the #3 bestseller in 1957, is a fictionalized account of a crime and trial which actually happened in Chicago in the 1920s, known as the Leopold and Loeb case. Two teen aged boys from wealthy families kidnapped and killed a young boy and were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. It was sensationalized in the media of the time as "the crime of the century" and "the trial of the century." 
  Meyer Levin was a cub reporter for a Chicago newspaper at that time and got to know the boys, the story and even the defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Thirty years later he wrote Compulsion, both as a novel and a play. It was also released as a film in 1959.

 The book is well written and though long, held my interest. I believe it is the first in the True Crime genre which was followed by books like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Execution's Song by Norman Mailer. The tale is told from a psychological viewpoint. Psychology and psychiatry were new subjects in America in the 1920s and I have seen the penetration of these ideas into both American and European literature as I have been reading through the fiction of the 1940s and 1950s.

 Psychiatric evaluations of the two youth by alienists, as they were called then, are submitted in the trial by both the prosecution and the defense. Along with psychoanalytical thinking one always has sex, thanks to Freud, and Compulsion is full of it. The boys were homosexually involved as well as fixated on sexual encounters with women. They each had strained relations with both of their parents. The explicit language is a wonder, since Lady Chatterly's Lover and The Tropic of Cancer were still banned books until 1959.

 In fact, the top three bestsellers of 1957 are all about sex: By Love Possessed, James Gould Cozzens at #1 and Peyton Place, Grace Metalious at #2. The "sexual revolution" may not have become mainstream for another decade but its seeds were sprouting in that ostensibly bland 1950s decade, especially during the latter years.

(Compusion is another bestseller that has gone out of print. Check your local library or used book seller.)

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