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.