#667: A Kiss Before Dying (1953) by Ira Levin

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In our recent discussion about inverted mysteries, Aidan made Ira Levin’s debut A Kiss Before Dying (1953) sound simply fabulous: the first part of the novel follows a nameless man as he commits a murder, the second part is then concerned with unpicking his identity, and the third is the fallout.  Much like Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts, then, you get both an inverted and a traditional detective story, knowing who the killer is and watching characters who aren’t aware of his identity coming to that awareness, with the additional kick of only finding out yourself with about 100 pages remaining in the book.

The opening section is magnificent.  Levin doesn’t preach, and doesn’t batter you over the head with how deluded his nameless protagonist is, and doesn’t regurgitate any cod psychology to justify what’s about to happen.  Instead, you get a simple portrait of a proud, attractive, successful man who has gotten used to being attractive and successful (witness his self-disgust in the brief relaying of his war experience), and in having things more or less his own way.  And that includes his relationship with attractive fellow college student Dorothy Kingship, youngest daughter of copper magnate Leo Kingship, doubtless the door to a vast fortune so long as everything continues to go to plan.  Which it does, right up until Dorothy reveals that she’s two months pregnant and our protagonist recognises that this will see her ostracised from her martinet father and so place his money forever out of reach.

What angered him most was that in a sense the responsibility for the entire situation rested with Dorothy.  He had wanted to take her to his room only once — a down-payment guaranteeing the fulfilment of a contract.  It was Dorothy, with her gently closed eyes and her passive, orphan hunger, who had wished for further visits.  He struck the table.  It really was her fault!  Damn her!

Coming to the conclusion that there’s no other alternative he begins to treat as “a mental exercise” the solving of this conundrum.  And so, without wishing to spoil details, Dorothy dies, with our killer as coldly removed from events as anything you’re likely to read in a long, time time (“For once in her life she was punctual” he reflects, as she meets him to be taken to her death).  The “luxuriant superiority of the omniscient” that follows the murder is only to be expected: his self-congratulation at precluding the simple oversights that might lead to his capture, and the way he must seek further affirmation when the death isn’t even a three-day wonder:

He read about Landru, Smith, Pritchard, Crippen; men who had failed where he had succeeded.  Of course, it was only the failures whose stories got written — God knows how many successful ones there were.  Still, it was flattering to consider how many had failed.

From here, well, we must be more circumspect.  Dorothy’s sister Ellen, using a piece of logic so brilliant in its reasoning that any ensuing detection would struggle to live up to it, refuses to believe Dorothy wasn’t murdered and so begins to investigate.  An especially piquant touch here sees the wrong interpretation put on one piece of evidence which is, quite by chance, the right interpretation, and the steady whittling of possibilities is both smartly and stupidly handled as befits someone unknown to this sort of activity.  Thanks to a development lifted out out Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen, the conclusion of this investigation gives us the identity of the killer and Ellen a confederate who will carry the case through to its conclusion.  If the book is peccant in any meaningful way, it’s that the identity reveal is…meh, and means far more to the characters that it ever can to the reader.  As the book progresses you’re able to retrospectively appreciate how clever it is, but taking the narrative as presented, it’s a weirdly damp squib of a ‘ta-daaaa!’ that left me more confused than aghast.

Still, the writing throughout is magnificent, such as the muzzle of a gun being pressed into someone’s body “painfully at first, and then numbingly…as though death came from the gun not in a swift bullet but in slow radiation from the point of contact”.  As the third section enters howcatchem territory, and it’s only a matter of time before any obstinate objections to the inevitable are overthrown, the prose remains wire-taut, a plenary exercise in suspense-building (although there is a lot of discussion about copper mining in that final stretch…) that plays the grandiloquent self-preservation of our killer’s self-esteem against the grim-faced determination of those out to make him pay for his misdeeds.  It’s this section which really shows the inverted mystery at its strongest, since the two threads wind around each other with beautiful inevitability, and come to a head as crushingly as you could ever hope.  And the final line of the book is just…oh, man, it’s perfect.

So, there’s a huge amount to like here, and some nice touches to fill out the world (college basketball is apparently played in halves, not the quarters of the professional game — or, certainly, it appears to haver been in 1951).  It’s a fabulous performance, perhaps only slightly deflating in a few minor areas, and all the more staggering for being a debut.  My understanding is that Levin went on to write increasingly fantasy-based novels (Rosemary’s Baby (1967), The Stepford Wives (1972), The Boys from Brazil (1976)…holy shit, these all came from the same guy?!) and, that being the case, suspense literature may well have lost a genuine superstar.  I’ve seen the movies of the above titles, but if anyone can vouch for the books, I’d love to read more by Levin — any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

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See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: One of the most impressive things about this novel is its careful construction. Take that first section of the novel which manages to make the reader feel like they have got to know the murderer. I managed to get all the way to the second section of the book before I realized that Levin has avoided ever giving you the character’s name, either in conversation or narration. This allows the writer to then switch format from the inverted style to a more traditional investigation format.

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: After finding the book in a used bookstore and rereading it myself… I enjoyed it even more than the last time and have to admire and envy, as [Otto] Penzler does, Levin’s relative youth and inexperience when he penned it. Within one novel, the author plays with numerous sub-genres: the inverted mystery, the whodunit, the HIBK thriller, all stripped of their nostalgic trappings (for the time) and given a modern feel. And yet, reading it as a full-blown adult this time around, I had to smile at the nostalgic innocence of early 50’s college life playing background to the nasty events that engulf the characters.

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My Corsair edition pictured above features an introduction by Chelsea Cain, and I want to talk about that briefly.  Now — let’s be clear — I’m not saying that Chelsea Cain didn’t read this book before writing the introduction, that might be libellous, but I will say that her description of the plot doesn’t set up a fair expectation of what the book delivers.  Her assertion that our killer “hates women” when it’s well-established that he’s far more concerned about his own appearance in the eyes of others, and his motive for murder is stated more than a few times to be exclusively pecuniary, comes across like a desire to wedge in a misogynistic narrative that the book simply doesn’t possess.  Yes, he kills women.  But on account of hatred of them?  Given his desire to been seen as successful in the eyes of his mother, to live up to her vision of him…that’s like, the opposite, right?

Equally, she talks about the “terrifying suspense every time a fair-haired fellow saunters into the room” since our killer’s fair hair is the only physical detail we have to go on, but, like, only two blonde men feature in the narrative, and they only feature in the narrative because they’re blonde — they come under suspicion well before we’ve seen either of them, and we know they’re suspects so far ahead of time that there’s no suspense about their sudden arrival.  I’m also not sure where her claims of “dark wit” and the “sense of humor lurk[ing] around every corner of terror and suspense” come from — she fails to cite any examples, and, honestly, just seems to be playing a game of Over-Praise Bingo with herself while also trying to shoehorn in the ‘inventive’ (read: fulfilling the modern vogue for torture porn) methods of death she’s contrived to feature in her own books.

So, yeah, don’t read the introduction until after the book.  Or at all.  The recent slew of well-written, well-researched, intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, and accurate introductions we’ve seen in recent reprints — take a bow Martin Edwards, Curtis Evans, Steve Barge, Nigel Moss, John Curran — have raised the bar a significant amount, and this sort of attention-seeking slapdashery stands out a mile.  A book of this quality deserved far better.

35 thoughts on “#667: A Kiss Before Dying (1953) by Ira Levin

  1. Rosemary’s Baby is a brilliant book, one of the first modern examples of merging the freaky supernatural with the ordinary modern world. I love is science fiction novel This Perfect Day. I’m less in love with The Stepford Wives, which is really good until you find out what’s going on. (The whole thing is ridiculous!) And for some reason, The Boys from Brazil feels even
    more gimmicky to me. Levin was always fun to read.

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    • I’ve loved the movies of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and the (original) Stepford Wives, but we all know how movies and books can differ. Certainly Levin seems to have had a wonderfully creative imagination that fitted into a contemporary niche of paranoia. I can’t help but wish he’d written more “straight” crime and suspense, but I’ll definitely read more by him even if it’s not quite of the ilk to feature on this blog.

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      • Oh, absolutely! He never saw fit to return to the genre; in fact, he dabbled in every genre, with mixed results. He crafted scenes well, which is why they made good films. And as Sergio mentioned, he did explore our favorite genre in play form. Both of those titles are fun reads. However, Son of Rosemary is a huge pile of crap! His last novel, Sliver is also a mystery and also crap. But readable! Always readable! 🙂

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        • I saw Sliver as a title of his and thought “Huh, just like the Sharon Stone movie – what are the odds?” and it turns out that the Sharon Stone movie is based on the book. Loosely based, I’m imagining, but still. And holy crap does, Levi have the highest density of works turned into movies of any author? It seems everything the man touched turned to celluloid…

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  2. I was really excited to see that you were going to try this and I am happy that it impressed you (aside from the issue with the reveal in the end of the second section). I certainly agree that the ending is incredibly powerful – the imagery used is really effective and pulls everything together so well thematically.
    I do think that Cain presents the novel from a slightly different perspective than I held. I would suggest that while the cruelty manifests towards women that is a consequence of his plan. My impression is that he views everyone as means to an end and blames others for his misfortune.
    He is definitely one of the cruelest killers I can remember encountering, in part because he is so cool (in the not sweating sense). Even knowing the first murder was coming, it is so swift and brutally simple that it really shocked me.
    I haven’t read any more Levin yet though I own Stepford and Boys from Brazil.

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    • I think Cain presents the book from a different perspective to, like, anyone else who has read this.

      Thanks for talking this one up so effectively — it would have lingered on my TBR for a lot longer if you hadn’t been such a fanboy about it, and I’m really pleased to have encountered it now. Hopefully the 1950s produced a bunch of similarly effective inverted mysteries, given how influential this feels. All we have to do now is discover them…

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  3. Great review JJ, especially as this is a tough book to write about. The big twist in the middle really blew my mind at the time (Stephen King is very nice about it too). And yeah, that intro sounds like it has it’s own agenda. 🙄

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    • Bah, Stephen King is nice about everything. Can’t fault the man’s enthusiasm, but just once I’d like to hear of a book he read and didn’t enjoy 🙂

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  4. PS The adaptation of ROSEMARY’S BABY is ultra faithful but it’s a great book. The belated sequel has one of the best titles ever: SON OF ROSEMARY. Levin was also a highly successful playwright, initially of comedies and later one hugely popular thriller, DEATHTRAP, later filmed with Michael Caine. Yonks ago I did a review of his lesser known suspense play, VERONICA’S ROOM, which is very odd but fascinating.

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  5. Thanks JJ for the review… I had taken note of the title from Aidan’s and Brad’s review, but wasn’t sure if I’d buy into the inverted genre. But it sounds like Levin marries inverted with traditional quite interestingly in this one?

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    • Oh, Jonathan, how can you not be interested in the inverted mystery? Come, now, be reasonable — there are some magnificent examples. And there’s a piece of deductive reasoning in this that’s as brilliant as anything you’ll find in a “straight” detective novel, plus that lovely instance of the wrong interpretation being put on something that actually provides, in a way, the right interpretation…it does a lot of very clever things, and does them very well indeed. Dive in!

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      • At the risk of sounding like a highly insular curmudgeon, saying that there are some magnificent examples of the inverted mystery is like saying that there are magnificent examples of torture porn, furry sci-fi or religious pamphlets available. I’m sure there might be great writing in all of those genres, but if you’re not interested in the genre, that really won’t help.

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        • Well, sure, but this one plays enough with the trappings of traditional detective fiction, as I said in that reply, that there’s enough there for a fan of traditional “straight” whodunnit narratives to possibly give it a look. Being put off of this purely because it’s an inverted mystery is a folly, because it isn’t just an inverted mystery.

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          • Much as I am slightly sceptical about the description of ‘magnificent examples’ of inverted mysteries, I would still stop short of comparing the genre with torture porn… 😅 But I take Christian’s point.

            What are your top 5 magnificent and exceptional inverted mysteries, JJ?

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    • I have ill-formed memories of the movie — essentially I seem to remember the first death, and I’m pretty sure the protagonist (?) gets his comeuppance in a very different manner in the move (it involves a train, I seem to remember, when the book doesn’t go anywhere near a train).

      But yeah, having now read the book it seems weird that someone would choose to film this. I suppose you could have started the movie at the end of the first section with that opening murder, just don’t show the guy’s face, and then pick it up from there. Actually, that would have worked really well. Why didn’t they do that? Or did they? I honestly can’t remember, I saw the movie frankly yonks ago.

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      • Great book and I seem to remember the film somehow working. I’m keen to see it again now.

        Deathtrap is fun, a bit Sleuth-like I’d say.

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        • one of these days I’ll get whatever streaming services has all these old films and finally get round to them. Except I fear that they’re spread over about 16 different providers, so I’ll never actually see them all…

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  6. For something from the same era, early fifties college US, you can do a lot worse than ‘Last Seen Wearing’ by Hilary Waugh. It’s not inverted but is a piece by piece logical police procedural to catch the killer. Waugh seems to be way off the radar these days but he went in to write several procedurals featuring Police Chief Fred C Fellows. The Missing Man is a favourite of mine.

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    • Ah, grand, thank-you. I’ve heard of Waugh but never read him and couldn’t tell you anything about his output. I’ll look into this and see how it turns out.

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  7. The (first) movie of A Kiss Before Dying has its effective aspects (using Robert Wagner’s slightly ambiguous attractiveness to good purpose), but it inevitably has to lose the surprise aspect that a writer on the page can maintain. Some books are booby-trapped that way (The Manchurian Candidate is another example, and no doubt there are many more).

    Ira Levin really was a gifted spinner of gripping stories. Rosemary’s Baby is a prime example, and the movie pretty much lives up to the book, which is greatly to its credit. The Stepford Wives never worked for me: the novel reads like an early draft, or an outline for a book yet to be written, and the (first) movie messes it up in additional ways. The Boys from Brazil seemed eye-rollingly over the top in all media. But a now-forgotten novel of this, This Perfect Day, I find extremely good. It’s more pure SF than its other books.

    Among his many plays, Deathtrap certainly was the most commercially successful; it’s still one of the longest-running nonmusical plays ever on Broadway. I’d recommend reading it, rather than seeing the movie first, as the play has an almost perfect scene-to-scene subverting of expectations that wasn’t maintained in the movie. Unfortunately, one aspect of its plot makes it (happily) too dated to be effectively revivable onstage now.

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    • Hey, Rinaldo! A local community theatre did a production of Deathtrap a year or so ago. The big shocker is horribly dated, and while someone compared this to Sleuth, I’m sure they meant in terms of the “battle royale” format of both. Shaffer’s play is infinitely superior to Levin’s. But I’m glad someone else also liked This Perfect Day! It’s the only book of his I re-read on a semi-regular basis as one of my favorite dystopian novels.

      I also just want to say that, while I haven’t read the Condon novel, every time Angela Lansbury says, “Raymond, why don’t you relax with a nice game of solitaire?”, I get chills!

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      • Brad, that’s interesting that it’s still being done. I can see why: the structure is bound to be appealing to actors and directors. There was a national tour of it…. maybe a decade ago? (The sort that exists to fill out local theater’s subscription seasons with something familiar.) I planned to go, when I saw that the great Mariette Hartley was to be in the cast. But by the time it got here, it was Cindy Williams, which erased the appeal.

        It’s hard to talk about the “dated” part, as it’s a surprise within the play; but the dated premise is that going public is absolutely inconceivable. And that’s all I can say about that.

        A more recent play that went even further with the premise of “Whatever you learned in the previous scene is wrong” is Rupert Holmes’s Accomplice. I bought and read the actors’ edition, and while I enjoyed it in a sense, and in a way admire Holmes for going all the way with it, I can’t see it being satisfying to an audience — as indeed it apparently wasn’t, in its 52-performance Broadway run.

        What a fabulous performance by Lansbury, isn’t it? In the Condon novel, the “booby-trapped for movies” aspect is that when that scene happens, we’re not told WHO the contact is. Also, she goes all the way with… what’s only a distant Freudian implication in the movie.

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    • Ah, I didn’t even realise there was more than one AKDB movie; the one I saw starred, I believe, Matt Dillon — I have hazy memories of watching it on BBC1 one Friday evening about, oh, 25 years ago.

      Having read and thoroughly loved the book — any book — I tend to find it best to avoid the movie; I see so few movies these days anyway, and I like my version of events that no-one’s ego has had the chance to mess around with 🙂

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      • I’d forgotten there was a 90s remake!

        I like watching film or TV adaptations of novels I’ve enjoyed, so I can moan throughout to my wife about how much better the book was!

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        • Let me join in the moaning over movie versions…

          The film version of Deathtrap is OK not great. It’s ruined by the presence of Dyan Cannon. Horrid over the top, grotesque performance of a role that should be an intelligent but paranoid and easily frightened woman who like her husband has a sinister side. Marian Seldes played the role on Broadway (never missed a performance in its four year run, a world record at the time) and made Myra much more complex than what Cannon did with the part. I know because I saw her opposite John Cullum as Sidney in its second year. The play is vastly better, especially if cast well. And it”s constructed in such a way that the stage is really the only way to get the effective scare moments. I don’t think the movie is cast well at all. It’s so typical of 1980s Hollywood movies with a cast of box office draws, easily recognizable stars with “big names”, who don’t really mesh well, IMO. I mean, Irene Worth? Too old for the part, first off. There were better character actresses out there in the 1980s who could’ve made Helga a comic star turn, an iconic comic psychic in the manner of Rutherford’s Madame Arcati, which is what the role is supposed to be.

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          • I agree that there were things wrong with the movie, plenty of them. But I don’t fault Dyan Cannon for her performance — rather, those who cast her (thinking that a comedic, too-young actress was just the ticket) and the director who asked for that kind of performances (unless it’s a true star vehicle, movie actors don’t act in a vacuum and don’t get to do whatever they want); those may have been the same person. I did get a nice laugh out of the idea that Irene Worth was a big-name star who would draw audiences. I wish!!!

            Sidney Lumet was not the director for this movie, if a movie had to be made. He didn’t seem to be in tune with the material, and his strengths don’t include the delicate nuances needed for such material.

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            • It’s pointless to argue with you about Lumet, since the movie turned out as mediocre as you said. However, in theory he should have been a good choice for this. He was an actors’ director, and he had dealt quite well with certain issues that I can’t get into here in other movies of his. I tend to fall on side of “blame the cast” here. I very much liked Dyan Cannon as an actress – she’s wonderful in The Last of Sheila – but her tone here was different from the others, and what the role called for was different from who she played. Blame Lumet if you want for her performance, but all actors have their limits and, in this case, she exceeded hers. And I always found Reeve a cool customer, singularly lacking in hidden depths. That goes for this film, too. And Caine? Well, Caine is always good, but you can’t help comparing this to Sleuth and wish you were watching him in that one instead.

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  8. I can’t disagree much with any of what Brad says (it doesn’t let me reply directly to that comment, so I hope this ends up in the right position on the page). And of course neither of us was there. If actors have their limits as you say (and they do), so do directors. Lumet may have been an actors’ director, but he wasn’t a stylist, in the sense of bringing to life a milieu that wasn’t his. He was at home with what we might generalize as “contemporary New York,” where his best movies are set.* He had trouble with the insular period world of The Group (as Pauline Kael recorded, however one-sided her report), The Wiz seemed misguided to me, and The Sea Gull makes my point perfectly (good acting performances — genuinely great in a couple of cases — but they aren’t molded and united by a director’s guidance, they’re all in different styles).

    (*I have to concede Long Day’s Journey into Night and Murder on the Orient Express. And I’m not going to try weaseling out by thinking up special reasons why these departures from his home territory worked. They did work, and moviemaking is more complicated than a summary allows for. 🙂 But I will say that Murder on the Orient Express, though I love it inordinately and all the acting and production design is wonderful, has its moments that show Lumet not entirely at home with this sort of stylistic exercise: points where he clearly doesn’t understand what a word means, or where we see the same flashback from different angles and people aren’t saying or doing quite the same things, and it’s not intentional misleading, it’s just sloppiness.)

    Whew! I went on far too long and pointlessly about something truly peripheral to the discussion. Sorry, all!

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