Sunday 28 October 2018

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

What a book! Published in 1953, A Kiss Before Dying is a milestone of suspense and crime fiction, and a remarkable debut.

But what really drives other writers nuts is that Ira Levin was only 24 when the book came out, and therefore even younger when he wrote it.

A Kiss Before Dying is the story of a handsome, hard working, ambitious young man. In some ways he's an all-American boy, dreaming very big dreams. Indeed, with his systematic plan of self improvement and his "completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents" he's like the Great Gatsby's psychopathic twin.

Psychopathic because he'll stop at nothing to get what he wants.  

And his shortcut to the good life is his scheme to marry the pretty young daughter of a copper tycoon (the company is called Kingship Copper — what a great name). 

She's the perfect target because of her "passive, orphan hunger" for love, and her emotional vulnerability which, he reflects "had something to do with the coldness she felt towards her father." 

He's profoundly psychologically acute (as is Levin) and is meticulously cunning and manipulative, pumping his victim for information so he can draw up a list of his future father in law's likes and dislikes.

But what really drives this novel is the fact that Leo Kingship has three daughters, which leads to an intricate and nail-biting narrative. I'm being a bit coy here because I don't want to give too much away...
Besides strong sales (it's never been out of print), the book received rave reviews. Drexel Drake in the Chicago Sunday Tribune called it a "remarkably constructed story" and Anthony Boucher in the New York Times described its "technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off."  

What they are talking about is Ira Levin's use of unnamed first person narrative to allow the killer to hide in plain sight. When the story's viewpoint then switches to other characters we have no idea who the bad guy is. Or rather, we have some idea, which begins to ratchet up the suspense...

If you haven't read this book, Levin builds in some stunning surprises. Unless some idiot ruins it for you with spoilers — and I don't intend to be that idiot — you are in for a real treat. 

In fact, even if you have read it, it's likely to prove satisfyingly shocking. This was at least my third reading, but details had grown sufficiently vague for me to still be floored by one of Levin's greatest twists.

Since the story is told from three different viewpoints in three sections (one for each sister), the style of the book is allowed to change, smoothly and naturally.

The first part is a chilling internal portrait of the killer — full of slippery self justification. He's a perfectly realised character, narcissistic ("He ran his hand over his hair, wishing there were a mirror"), pitiless and implacable.

The second is a sort of a girl-detective story with a plucky young woman doing some "very cautious Sherlocking." She's smart and appealing and very switched on — she's "seen too many movies where the heroine" foolishly confronts the bad guy and comes to a sticky end. (Interesting that this was already such a cliché in the early 1950s.)

The third section of the book moves to a marvellously evoked New York City (Levin clearly loves his home town) where the killer thinks his goal is at last within reach. He's exultant. "Was there ever such a perfect day?" he asks, foreshadowing the title of a future novel by Levin.

But it's not that simple, chum, and the story becomes a nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse, and also a moving tale of loss as the final thrusts in this chess game are played out, at an immense cost to all concerned.

 A Kiss Before Dying is a great crime novel and a classic of suspense fiction. But it's deeper than that. It's ultimately a human tragedy about a father who unknowingly condemns his daughters to a horrible fate, and three girls who just wanted to find love.

You won't be able to put it down, or forget it once you finish it.

This post is part of a series I'm writing on the complete works of Ira Levin — nine out of ten cats recommend his fine novels! The introduction to this series can be found here. Next up, Rosemary's Baby.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads — the Turkish edition recycles a Tom Adams cover painting for an Agatha Christie book, The Seven Dials Mystery. The Corsair edition with the purple cover is from Hachette Australia. And the Signet with the red cover, the first paperback edition, is from Captain Ahab's Rare Books at ABE. The dustjacket of the original hardcover is from Facsimile Dust Jackets, which is a great resource and a wonderful idea. The photo of the discerning pussy cat inspecting Mr Levin's oeuvre is by yours truly.)


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  2. This and Sliver are his only novels without a (fantastic) genre connection but my regard for Levin is so high I don't care.

  3. Hey Al! I will be blogging about Sliver in due course.