Backlist Spotlight: The Leopold and Loeb Files

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In an era saturated with true crime, The Leopold and Loeb Files is a truly unique book. Barrett turns legal documents and primary sources into a gripping page-turner. The book is a collection of primary sources—transcripts gathered from police questioning and court proceedings, evidence presented in court including medical evaluations and family histories, and personal letters—organized into a cohesive narrative that follows Leopold and Loeb from the infamous murder to their deaths.

In The Leopold and Loeb Files, Barrett lets the reader play detective and then jury as they comb through the evidence searching for the elusive “why?” behind this infamous crime. Like the detectives and the public at the time, the reader is never given a conclusive answer and is left to make their own best guess.

The primary sources are often framed by the author’s own analysis in text boxes made to look like newspaper clippings that provide cultural context and direct quotes from news coverage of the crime. This structure cements the reader in the moment. They gather evidence with the detectives while public opinion and media coverage are constantly encroaching on the facts of the case.

The book also offers a unique window into the criminal justice system of the early 20th century. The main characters’ wealth and privilege are tantamount to this story. In the newspaper clippings that bracket the narrative, journalists highlight the absurdity that these two rich, well-educated young men could commit this crime. Because at this point in the story the reader already knows they did commit the crime, the question the book seems to pose is why is it so absurd to imagine them as murderers?

This question gets to the heart of modern debates about who the criminal justice system sees as a criminal. Barrett subtly calls attention to this disparity in a footnote about how the accused teachers were treated compared to the boys. After taking Leopold to a discreet location for questioning to avoid embarrassing the prominent families, the accused teachers “were held without a warrant for five days” and subjected to beating, sleep deprivation, and intimidation. It’s clear that Leopold and Loeb’s wealth and family prominence shielded them from the harsher tactics inflicted upon less connected suspects.

However, once they become suspects, even Leopold and Loeb’s treatment raises concern for modern readers. Even though the reader knows they are guilty, one can’t help but be reminded that they are also teenagers, being held without access to lawyers or parents whose advice would have surely helped them. This sympathy for their youth is the same tool that Darrow will use to argue against the death penalty in their trial. It is effective in both cases.

Reading their psychological evaluations, the progress made in the field of psychology in the last 100 years is almost shocking. Barrett leaves space for the reader to consider the modern diagnoses that may have been given to the main characters if they committed this crime today. But even with this greater understanding of psychology and 300 pages of characterization on the eponymous characters, much like the public at the time, the reader finishes the book feeling like they still don’t truly understand Leopold and Loeb.

The unique narrative structure of this book makes an oft-told, hundred-year-old story, feel immediate. The Leopold and Loeb Files grapples with the plasticity of justice, mercy, and what it means to be sane, making it a relevant read for this current moment.

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