One of my top murder cases to study and read about is that of Bobby Franks at the hands of the murderous pair, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two young men who seem to share the same face if you look at them long enough. With two similar faces along with two oddly similar surnames, their union was almost guaranteed to have tragic results. Leopold and Loeb were cold, indifferent, and bored. They were bored by life, by school, by privilege, by luxury, by Chicago, bored by everything coming so easy to them.
It was a recipe for disaster. Candace Fleming’s Murder Among Friends: How Leopold and Loeb Tried to Commit the Perfect Crime is about that disaster, as friends Nathan and Richard, conspired to abduct and murder a victim they chose at random just to prove their superior nature. A disaster of an act, and a disaster of a plan.
This being one of my favorite murder cases means I´ve read many of the materials published about the topic, as well as watched some of the projects inspired by it. The fictional adaptations have the luxury of dramatizing the facts (these include the films Murder by Numbers, Funny Games, Rope, and Swoon and the novel These Violent Delights), but nonfiction works are usually forced to reword the same details over and over again. This was a single murder with an investigation that lasted no longer than two weeks. There isn’t a lot to get into there, which is why many true crime texts prefer to discuss the trial, the psychology behind the motive, the relationship between the boys, and the effect that extreme privilege had on their decisions. Factoring in these details, many authors are still forced to discover new ways of telling the same story in hopes of making it stand out. Unfortunately, Murder Among Friends by Candace Fleming does not stand out.
The text is not exactly lacking, but when compared to other materials about the topic, reads like a bland rerun of the same old information. Although this book is a 2022 release, there is nothing new to discover about the case. Therefore, Murder Among Friends is no different than a decent but forgettable remake of a film that has been remade a dozen times. There have been numerous books published on this topic, but Fleming deploys only the most basic of facts.
The case of Leopold and Loeb is famous for a multitude of reasons, the largest and most menacing reason lies in the motive, in that they committed murder for no reason at all. Leopold and Loeb were two well-educated, highly intelligent young men from extremely prominent families. As friends, they didn´t seem to fit together. Loeb was more on the charismatic side, a handsome jock who idolized outlaws, while Leopold was an anti-social intellectual often described as snobbish, preferring to spend his time bird watching over common social activities. Nevertheless, the two met, bonded, and thought themselves superior to their less intelligent peers. This perceived superiority combined with other factors eventually resulted in the kidnapping and murder of Bobby Franks, the 14-year-old cousin of Richard Loeb. Their crime was meticulously planned, but it took less than a day for the cracks to appear. The two were tracked down and arrested, tried and charged with their crime in the “trial of the century” that concluded on September 10, 1924 with two life sentences and an additional 99 years added on for kidnapping.
Murder Among Friends provides all of this information, with Fleming picking the occasional detail to highlight as a moment of shock the reader is meant to pay particular attention to, but that´s it. I will admit that I judged this book rather harshly, maybe too harshly because of the prologue. As a start to the story, Fleming opens with the moment that the mother of the 14-year-old Bobby Franks, Flora Franks, learns that her son has been kidnapped. Since Fleming was not there in 1924, she makes uncomfortably narrative assumptions that felt over the top and hastily summarized and did not add to the story’s unfolding. A dramatization of what is for the most part, a presumed event that because she runs so boldly with it, at least to me, says that she didn’t dig all that deep into the story.
Many accounts of this moment make the claim that Flora Franks fainted upon receiving the call, and Fleming follows suit. It is a commonly held belief because it was a detail that appeared in the papers all over Chicago at that time. In reality, her exact reaction will remain unknown because she’d been alone when she was notified, however, we do have her own personal narration of the scene as she described it in court in 1924.
The following quote is from the official court transcripts of Flora Franks’ witness testimony from the Criminal Court of Cook County:
“The phone rang, and I went to the telephone, and they asked for Mr. Franks, and I said Mr. Franks was not home but I was Mrs. Franks. I asked them what they wanted, and they said ‘Your son has been kidnapped. He is all right; further news in the morning.’ I said, ‘who is this?’ and they said ‘Johnson,’ I wanted to ask something else, but they hung up.”
In the testimony, Franks seemed to have been very clear-headed during the event, even after the call. Franks also supposedly debunked the fainting story years later, or at least how it’d been retold. (Leopold & Loeb by Hal Higdon, 1975).
Although Fleming did her research, the way she wrote Murder Among Friends appears not to inform, or to explain, but to dramatize. Many details are quick and summarized with more focus on action “scenes” that Fleming writes with hopes of bringing to life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work all that well. Overall, Fleming provides all the information that a reader needs to understand the facts about this case, but she barely goes beneath the surface of any of it.
For anyone interested in the Leopold and Loeb case, I suggest Leopold & Loeb: The Crime of the Century by Hal Higdon. Published in 1975, four years after Nathan Leopold’s death (Richard Loeb had already been dead for 35 years by that time). It’s a bit dated but offers up more information on the case than anything else I´ve ever read.
Please add Murder Among Friends to your Goodreads shelf.
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About the Writer:
Rachel Roth is an author and poet living in South Florida. A graduate of the University of South Florida with a Bachelor’s in English and a Certificate in Creative Writing, she’s written for several horror anthologies and literary journals including 101 Horror Proof, Pandemic Unleashed, and Darkness Wakes. The horror story, The Undead Redhead: The Girl in the Mall is her debut novel.