Thursday, August 28, 2008

Simon Baatz's "For the Thrill of It"

Simon Baatz holds a joint appointment as associate professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

He applied “Page 99 Test” to his new book, For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago, and reported the following:
On page 99 of For the Thrill of It, Nathan Leopold is walking along Ellis Avenue when he meets his former high school teacher, Mott Kirk Mitchell. The previous day, Wednesday, 21 May, Leopold had helped Richard Loeb murder Bobby Franks, a fourteen-year-old boy. That Thursday, as Leopold stops to talk to Mitchell in the street, the Chicago newspapers are reporting that the mutilated body of a child has been found in a drainage ditch south of Chicago. Mitchell is walking toward the Harvard School (where Bobby was a pupil) to meet with the school principal.

“How do you do, Mr. Mitchell?” Nathan inquired sincerely, “I haven’t seen you for a long time; how are you?”

Mitchell peered at the young man in front of him -- who was he? Yes, he recognized him now. Nathan Leopold had been a student at the Harvard School a few years back. Mitchell remembered him as an obnoxious pupil, clever certainly, one of the best students in the class, but too arrogant and cynical to be likable.

“Have you heard,” Mitchell asked, “about the Franks boy?”

“No,” Nathan replied.

Everyone at the Harvard School, Mitchell explained, was worried at the disappearance of Bobby Franks. There was a rumor going about that someone had kidnapped Bobby and now there was news that a boy’s body had been found out by the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near the Indiana state line.

“Do you know him?” Mitchell asked.

Nathan shook his head, “No.”

“Robert Franks?”


Mitchell stayed a few minutes more on the sidewalk, talking about the murder, as Nathan listened. It was inexplicable, Mitchell proclaimed, that someone would murder Bobby Franks ... and what effect would it have on the Harvard School? Bobby had disappeared the previous day on his way home after school, not far from where they stood -- was any child safe while the murderer was still at large?

Some reviewers have questioned my technique in this book. How can Baatz write a non-fiction book in such a novelistic manner? Is it legitimate for a historian to write with such immediacy and such vividness? In this case, yes. The manuscript sources – the confessions of Leopold and Loeb, the reports of the psychiatrists, and the transcript of the trial – provide such extraordinary detail and so many lengthy passages of dialogue (the conversation reproduced above is taken verbatim from the official record) that I have been able to render the story of Leopold and Loeb in the most dramatic way possible. The murder of Bobby Franks was a brutal crime, a crime committed in the most cynical and calculated manner, an act of depravity that has become part of the history of Chicago.
Browse inside For the Thrill of It, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue