In her latest book, Murder Among Friends, prolific nonfiction author Candace Fleming (The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh; The Family Romanov) investigates true crime and the notorious murder perpetrated by 19-year-old Nathan Leopold and 18-year-old Richard Loeb in 1924 that led to a landmark court case that changed the rules for the death penalty in the U.S. PW spoke with Fleming about what inspired her to tackle this harrowing story, how her writing process changed for this project, and the way she included important legal concepts while maintaining the book’s gripping pace.
What drew you to the subject of Leopold and Loeb and the grisly murder they hoped would be the perfect crime?
I live in Chicago, and it’s a story that’s part of the Chicago story. As a kid I went to the Chicago Historical Society, now the Chicago History Museum, and saw a big exhibit on Leopold and Loeb. I must have been 14 at the time and I became sort of obsessed with the story, mostly by the question of why they did it. I’m still not clear about the why.
When I was searching for a new project, the pandemic hit, which limited my traveling to archives outside of my own city. And it seemed like time to tell this story. I think teens will want to read this book because teens love true crime. But I think it’s a story that resonates as they follow this really strange, grisly murder and these even stranger young men. It’s also courtroom drama at its finest. And it raises questions about how we live today.
Writing true crime was a pivot for you. Were you a true crime devotee before this project? And how did your research and writing process differ compared to how you approach narrative nonfiction?
I do read true crime and I listen to [true crime] podcasts. This story is highly narrative, but there was a difference in this project. The research is still the same. You’re still trying to get all that information and trying to make it accurate. But in this case, I worked hard at being suspenseful, on adding cliffhangers, and either winding the story out or unwinding it slowly. As I wrote, I thought of it like a film. I tried to consider what would have the biggest impact on readers, and what would make them turn the page. I was thinking about suspense and not revealing everything immediately, which is a different approach for me.
I want readers to read it because it’s good and because there’s drama and suspense. Then I hope they close the book and think about some things like inequality within our legal system. The question in 1924 was, can a rich man be convicted? Sounds like the same question in 2022. And what does being white, privileged, and wealthy do for you in the legal system? And what do we do with juvenile offenders? Those are all questions that spring directly from the Leopold and Loeb [case] beyond it being just a fascinating story.
The courtroom drama and arguments by famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow in this case created fundamental changes to the death penalty. How did you balance the nuanced ethical and legal issues in this section, while also maintaining the taut pacing of a thriller?
That was hard. Here was this amazing drama, and yet I knew that there were a lot of things that my readers would not understand about what Clarence Darrow did to change how we think about the death penalty in this country. Darrow was asking these important questions. Why do we even have a death penalty? And as a society do we kill children? Leopold and Loeb are 18 and 19, but the legal age at that time was 21. They couldn’t sign a contract. They couldn’t get married.
It was a careful balancing act and as I wrote I would ask myself, do I interrupt the flow of this story? Do I interrupt this great dramatic scene to stop and define something like a mitigating circumstance? I did a lot of rewriting after the first, second, and third draft where I would pluck things out of the courtroom and put them in scenes earlier. I knew I had to stop in so many places to define terms. What’s the legal definition of insanity? And the fact that in 1924 in Illinois, courtrooms did not take mental illness into account beyond insanity. As I revised, I would find scenes to establish context that would keep my readers reading but that would also help them understand the legal issues within the story.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on the third in a picture book series with Eric [Rohmann] about the polar bear. And, I’m also in the throes of researching a book about cults. It centers around teenagers who were at Jonestown. It deals a lot with agency, cognitive dissonance, and why we continue to believe things even when evidence strongly suggests that what we’re believing is absolutely made up from whole cloth. I’m off to San Francisco in two weeks to research the Peoples Temple archive at the California Historical Society. I have some interviews with survivors set up, too. It’s absolutely engrossing and also wildly depressing.
Murder Among Friends: How Leopold and Loeb Tried to Commit the Perfect Crime by Candace Fleming. Random House/Anne Schwartz Books, $19.99 Mar 29. ISBN 978-0-593-17742-6