For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago
by Simon Baatz
(Harper, $27.95)

The victim of one of the 20th century’s most notorious murders could have been any number of boys. On May 21, 1924, 14-year-old Bobby Franks just happened to be walking alone in an affluent section of Chicago when 19-year-old Nathan Leopold and 18-year-old Dickie Loeb began trolling the neighborhood in a rented car. The older teens, both precocious and wealthy graduate students, had rehearsed elements of the crime for weeks. When Franks was coaxed into the passenger seat, Loeb grabbed the boy from behind and began pummeling his head with a chisel. Franks was dead and his body cooling when the killers stopped to fill up on hot dogs. They then drove to a nearby swamp, doused the corpse with acid, and stuffed it into a drainpipe.

The reason Leopold and Loeb’s crime “still has the power to daze us” is that the perpetrators’ only motive was to “see what it would be like to kill someone,” said Kevin Guilfoile in the Chicago Tribune. Theirs was a story of “gross self-indulgence” and Freudian intrigue that “landed in the sweet spot of the 1920s zeitgeist.” And though screenwriters and playwrights in the decades since have often borrowed the outlines of the tale, a dramatic nonfiction account of the murder and subsequent trial hadn’t been published until now. “Impressive in its research” and “immensely readable,” For the Thrill of It is “likely to be the definitive work” on Leopold and Loeb for many years to come, said Joseph Epstein in The Wall Street Journal.

Author Simon Baatz drags the trial out too long and colors his account with details that seem impossible for him to know, said Sarah F. Gold, also in the Chicago Tribune. Fortunately, he’s very good at conveying the dynamics of Leopold and Loeb’s twisted relationship. Loeb imagined himself a criminal mastermind, and he offered sex to his emotionally needy peer in reward for loyal complicity. Though that partly explains why Leopold went along, said John Steele Gordon in The New York Times, Baatz can’t answer all our questions. Sure, he “writes extremely well.” But he’d have to be Shakespeare to explain why these men “risked so much” for “so transient a thrill.”