No 414 A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin Book 5 of #20booksofsummer

I’m sure at some point Ira Levin has written a bad book, but so far, I haven’t read it yet. Following on from my enjoyment of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives comes another crime classic, made all the more impressive by the knowledge that this was his debut novel, published when he was just 23!

A Kiss Before Dying is less fantastical than the other two Levin novels I’ve read. It is set mostly on a small-town college campus and has as it’s protagonist, a good-looking all-American boy. However, this is one all-American boy who will stop at nothing-not even murder-to get what he wants from life. Despite his charm, good looks and charisma, he has no money, so he decides to marry in to it rather than make it for himself. He has been dating Dorothy, the daughter of a wealthy copper magnate for a year now and she loves him and wants to marry him.

Everything has been going to plan, until now. Dorothy is pregnant and this man knows that her father will disown her if she has a child out of wedlock. So, the child must be got rid of. But when his plan to get rid of the child fails, the man decides that Dorothy will have to die instead.

The less you know about the rest of the plot, the more you will enjoy A Kiss Before Dying because structurally, it is a work of perfection. Narrating the opening section, this psychopathic male student remains unnamed, which allows Levin to indulge is some deftly managed misdirection for both his characters and his readers regarding the killer’s identity. When the novel changes perspective in the second section, now told from Dorothy’s sister Ellen’s point of view, the reader suddenly has no idea who this killer is. It’s a striking gamble, but it pays off. For the entire first section of this book, the reader has been inside the killer’s head and then Levin pulls you out and leaves you realising that you have no idea who he might be. Suddenly no one is above suspicion and no character in the novel is safe.

What makes the central concept even more appealing is that it raises the stakes, and as such, raises the tension. A Kiss Before Dying is an incredibly suspenseful read, and Levin is particularly skilled at framing the threat of violence as being just as terrifying as violence itself.

She listened with the muzzle of his gun jabbing painfully into her hip; painfully only at first, then numbingly, as though that part of her were already dead, as though death came from the gun not in a swift bullet but in slow radiation from the point of contact.

Featuring a protagonist who attempts to elevate himself from humble origins through murderous deeds, A Kiss Before Dying does beg some comparison with Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, however it lacks the emotional depth of that novel. Here Levin gives motivation for his killer’s grasping crimes – a childhood of promise that has not materialised into adult success thanks to the draft and an episode with a Japanese prisoner of war – but here characterisation comes second to plot and while that might make for a book that is lacking in psychological depth and insight, it doesn’t make it any less entertaining.

Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward in the 1956 film adaptation of A Kiss Before Dying.

A Kiss Before Dying is a bravura thriller, full of magnificently taut writing, a palpable sense of suspense and a structure and plotting that enhance and heighten the power of the novel as a whole. Levin is an absolute master of genre, always exploiting the commercial aspects of his novels, but never shortchanging his readers. He taps into that primal fear that we can never fully know who someone else is and few writers depicts the banality of evil better.


20 Books of Summer The 746

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

31 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I don’t read much crime, but this I have read, and I think it was one of the first crime books I ever read. I’m not a huge fan of the more “creepy”/horror stories like Rosemary’s baby, but something more real like this, can appeal. Still, for me character is more important than plot … so crime remains in the background.


  2. I don’t think I ever knew that Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives were books. And of course I have heard of A Kiss Before Dying but once again, the movie version. This book sounds very good to me. You checked all my boxes with this review.


  3. I’m so frustrated at reading how good this is. I have the exact same edition you have but I can’t find it anywhere. I know what will happen – the minute I buy a new copy, the old one will turn up


  4. Sounds great – I really must read some of Levin’s books one of these days, they always sound interesting. I’m also intrigued to see how this one worked as a film, given that I can’t imagine how they could keep the hidden identity aspect of the book. So unfair of you to increase my TBR and my TBW list with one review… 😉


    • I was really impressed with The Stepford Wives, which is much more ambiguous than the film adaptations have made it seem. This is worth reading for the structure alone. I have The Boys From Brazil lined up for the 1976 Club later in the year and have heard from others that it is his best.


  5. Most of what I remember from the novel of Rosemary’s Baby was the claustrophobic atmosphere — the double denouement (the nature of the baby and Rosemary’s decision) having been well flagged up by the film. This also sounds good on atmosphere, though of a different nature, and I am very tempted after this review. I’m not sure that I should thank you though, I’m still trying to jettison books, not pick them up! 🙂


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