Make It Better: The Leopold and Loeb case (the gruesome murder of a 14-year-old boy by two wealthy University of Chicago students in 1924) is one of the country’s most infamous crimes. How did you first become interested in it?
Nina Barrett: I was working in the publicity department at Northwestern University Library about 10 years ago [which] had a collection of original documents related to this case that was probably the most spectacular archival collection related to any murder in U.S. history. From the moment I opened the covers of the Confessions and started to read what Leopold and Loeb were saying in their own words, I was hooked.
This book is constructed almost entirely from primary source material. Why did you tell the story this way?
I’m a writer and an English major, and what struck me immediately is that the original language that is preserved in the documents is astonishingly eloquent. It’s as if Shakespeare had been sitting there taking notes as the police interrogated Leopold and Loeb. When defense attorney Clarence Darrow enters the court transcript for the first time, you understand from his first few sentences what a rhetorical genius he was, and how he probably was the one human being on the face of the earth who could have saved Leopold and Loeb from being executed, whether you approve of his tactics or not.
Why do you think the case continues to capture the public’s imagination so many years after it transpired?
I often refer to this case as not a “whodunit” but as a “whydunit.” We are forced to confront some of the most basic questions about being human and living in human society: Could your child, given every possible advantage of the American Dream, turn out to be such a monster? Could your child, despite all your efforts at protection, fall victim to such a monster, because it turns out monsters among us look and act just like everyone else?
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope readers will ponder their own answers to the questions I articulated above. These are all human mysteries that cannot be solved, but being challenged to think about them is an important part of forming one’s own ideas about crime, justice, and humanity.
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Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.