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.
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.
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.