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Compulsion: A Novel

Compulsion: A Novel

3.5 2
by Meyer Levin

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Judd Steiner and Artie Straus have it all: wealth, intelligence, and the world at their feet as part of the elite, upper-crust Jewish community of 1920s Chicago. Artie is handsome, athletic, and popular, but he possesses a hidden, powerful sadistic streak and a desire to dominate. Judd is a weedy introvert, a genius who longs for a companion whom he can idolize


Judd Steiner and Artie Straus have it all: wealth, intelligence, and the world at their feet as part of the elite, upper-crust Jewish community of 1920s Chicago. Artie is handsome, athletic, and popular, but he possesses a hidden, powerful sadistic streak and a desire to dominate. Judd is a weedy introvert, a genius who longs for a companion whom he can idolize and worship. Obsessed with Nietzsche’s idea of the superhuman, both boys decide to prove that they are above the laws of man by arbitrarily picking and murdering a Jewish boy in their neighborhood.

This new edition of Meyer Levin's classic literary thriller Compulsion reintroduces the fictionalized case of Leopold and Loeb – once considered the "crime of the century" – to a new generation. This incisive psychological portrait of two young murderers seized the imagination of an era and is generally recognized as paving the way for the first non-fiction novel. Compulsion forces us to ask what drives some further into darkness, and some to seek redemption.

Heartbreaking as it is gripping, Compulsion is written with a tense and penetrating force that led the Los Angeles Times to call Levin, “the most significant Jewish writer of his times.”

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The horrific murder in 1924 of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb inspired this acclaimed roman à clef, originally published in 1956. Levin, who was 18 at the time, covered the case for the Chicago Daily News. Thinly disguised as reporter Sid Silver, he narrates the tale of thrill killers Judd Steiner and Artie Straus. Steiner and Straus, acting as perverted Nietzschean supermen, abducted and murdered 13-year-old Paulie Kessler, the son of a pawnbroker. Thirty years later, Steiner is eligible for parole and Silver’s editor asks him to interview the prisoner, which frames the journalist’s recollection of the crime, its detection, and the trial. Levin (Citizens) makes the senseless brutality of the murderers palpable, as well as the suffering of the survivors, who include Steiner’s devastated father, unable to comprehend how his child could become a killer. The psychiatry feels dated, but otherwise this holds up as a landmark legal thriller. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
An "acclaimed roman à clef" that "holds up as a landmark legal thriller." — Publishers Weekly

"Meyer Levin’s astonishingly good novel....As psychological thriller and as courtroom drama, [Compulsion] has few peers; it ascends to a Dostoyevskian level." — Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal

"In many ways, Compulsion is a period piece, but its ability to communicate the horror of this famous crime gives it a lasting power." — Adam Kirsch, Tablet Magazine

An "unforgettable, heart-wrenching story of murder." — Mary Lignor, Suspense Magazine

"Paying close attention to historical detail, Compulsion is a deftly crafted novel that documents author Meyer Levin as a particularly gifted storyteller that will keep his readers total engaged from beginning to end." — Midwest Book Review

"Nearly a century after this 'crime of the century,' Levin’s tale — in this new edition, with a foreword by O.J. prosecutor-turned-novelist Marcia Clark — is no less gripping or disturbing." — JTA

Praise for Meyer Levin's Compulsion:

"Before In Cold Blood, before The Executioner’s Song, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion was the standard-bearer for what we think of as the nonfiction novel....Though this trial took place in 1924, the book raises issues pertaining to society and our justice system—such as popular biases, groupthink, and the inherent, perhaps unfixable, flaws in our legal system—that are as much in evidence today as they were back then." — Marcia Clark (from the foreword)

“If only for its rightful place in American literary history, Compulsion is worth reprinting. But it is also valuable because of its author’s novelistic gifts—a convincing portrait of two brilliant psychopaths, a narrative capacity for a spellbinding tale, an authentic depiction of the 1920s Chicago moral and political landscape. Compulsion is a credible portrait of an era, and an early example of an infamous crime turned into compelling fiction.” — Alan Lelchuk, author of American Mischief

“Though Truman Capote claimed to have invented a new literary genre with In Cold Blood—a form he called the ‘nonfiction novel’—that distinction truly belongs to Meyer Levin. For nearly a century now, the Leopold and Loeb case has maintained a firm hold on the popular imagination, generating histories, movies, stage dramas, even musicals and comic books. Of this seemingly endless stream of retellings, Levin’s lightly fictionalized masterpiece—so true to reality that Leopold himself famously sued the author—remains the most gripping, psychologically penetrating, and purely readable account of one of America’s most sensational crimes.” – Harold Schechter, author of The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

Compulsion is a lost star in the pantheon of America’s golden age of Jewish fiction; its re-release should be welcomed by all. Despite prejudices and misconceptions about homosexuality that are inseparable from the time in which the story is set (and in which it was written), Levin brilliantly dissects the human heart in this classic of psychological realism – a remarkably sympathetic portrait years ahead of its time. Its call for mercy instead of punishment, compassion instead of retribution, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read.”— Michael Lavigne, author of Not Me

Praise for previous editions of Compulsion:

"[Compulsion] is a masterly achievement in literary craftsmanship." – Erle Stanley Gardner, The New York Times

“A graphic and absorbing reconstruction of the crime of the century.” – The Saturday Review

“A book that can take its place with Dreiser’s An American Tragedy...Levin succeeds brilliantly in creating high suspense in his fictional retelling.” – New York Herald Tribune

Compulsion is a significant and moving work. For, as one of the driven sufferers in Crime and Punishment puts it, ‘though we do talk a lot of trash, and I do too, yet we shall talk our way to the truth at last.’ In his concern for his story, and in his understanding of the importance of the crime and the trial, Levin is writing his way to the truth. He has given us an important novel.” – Charles Shapiro, The Nation

Product Details

Fig Tree Books
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.80(d)

Meet the Author

Meyer Levin (1905 - 1981) was called by the Los Angeles Times "the most significant American Jewish writer of his times." Norman Mailer referred to him as "one of the best American writers working in the realistic tradition." Throughout his 60 years of professional work, Levin was a constant innovator, reinventing himself and stretching his literary style with remarkable versatility.

When Levin died in 1981 he left behind a remarkable and diverse body of work that not only reflected the incredible life he led but chronicled the development of the entire Jewish consciousness during the 20th century.

Marcia Clark began practicing law as a criminal defense attorney. She became a prosecutor in the L.A. District Attorney's Office in 1981, and spent ten years in the Special Trials Unit where she handled a number of high profile cases prior to the O.J. Simpson case, including the prosecution of stalker/murderer Robert Bardo, whose conviction for the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer resulted in legislation that offered victims better protection from stalkers as well as increased punishment for the offenders.

She has published three novels which feature Los Angeles Special Trials prosecutor Rachel Knight - Guilt by Association, Guilt by Degrees, and Killer Ambition and is currently at work on her fourth novel.

Gabriel Levin has published five collections of poetry, most recently Coming Forth By Day (Carcanet, 2014) and a collection of essays The Dune's Twisted Edge: Journeys in the Levant (The University of Chicago Press, 2013). He has as well published several collections of translation, including a selection of Yehuda Halevi's poetry, Poems from the Diwan (Anvil, 2002). He lives in Jerusalem.

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Compulsion 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It really captured my passion for criminal psychology and elevated it! I dissected every word of this book, and each word was a new revelation. It changed the way I think about the word Justice. I first read this book over three years ago and I haven't stopped begging others to read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago