The Bad Seed is a classic of crime and suspense fiction which has some notable similarities to Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying.
They were published within a year of each other (1953-1954), both enjoyed immediate commercial and critical success — Levin's book won an Edgar award. March's was nominated for the National Book Award.
Both novels have been filmed twice (The Bad Seed also became a successful stage play), both have remained constantly in print, and both books are masterpieces.
Also, both are stories about psychopaths who kill ruthlessly for gain.
But The Bad Seed is inevitably horrifying and heartbreaking in a way that A Kiss Before Dying isn't.
I say inevitably because the psychopathic killer in March's novel is an 8 year old girl, and the story is told from the point of view her mother, who gradually discovers the truth about her beloved daughter.
Christine Penmark is the mother and March brings her to life swiftly and economically. Christine is beautiful and a bit otherworldly and her peaceful existence is about to be filled with confusion and torment.
Near the beginning of the story we find her languidly holding her toothbrush "as though she were not quite decided what to do with it." Near the end she is holding a gun "as though she did not understand its purpose."
But the really indelible character is, of course, the homicidal child Rhoda, who is like a "pet that can never be quite domesticated", suffering her mother's kisses and caresses but profoundly unable to understand them. She responds with "a calculated simulation of affection."
Rhoda is a star pupil and avid attender of Sunday school, where she studies the bible and has a "strange affinity for the cruelties of the Old Testament."
On the surface she is a perfect little goody-two-shoes and most grownups adore her. However, at school "the other pupils both feared and detested Rhoda."
Quite right, too.
In many ways the book is a pitiless as its monstrous child. There
is no escape for Rhoda's mother. In the very first sentence of the book we
are presented with Christine and told this is "the day of her last happiness." And Marsh tightens
the screws on his unfortunate heroine remorselessly.
Even as the truth begins to dawn on her, she tells herself that it's "her duty to protect the child, to make every allowance for her."
March shrewdly equips Christine with friends and neighbours who are amateur experts on psychology and true crime, providing her with the clues she needs to work out the terrible reality of Rhoda's nature.
There is no way this can end well, and it doesn't. But it makes for riveting reading along the way.
(Image credits: all the covers are from Good Reads. Except for the Penguin in its classic green crime fiction livery, which is a scan of my own copy. I particularly like the Chinese edition, with a cover which is very true to the story, and the English hardback, which features an illustration by Robin Jacques including Leroy the janitor who is one of the few adults to see through Rhoda.)