A Kiss Before Dying

kiss before dyingIt’s kind of funny that I read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test just before reading Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying. Here, in this 1953 novel, long before Bob Hare’s test existed, before all the experiments and the books like The Sociopath Next Door, we find a portrait of a grade-A psychopath: a charming man who sees the world in terms of predators and prey, and considers that he deserves to be among the ranks of the former, no matter how many people he must kill to get there.

I can’t tell you very much about this book without revealing plot points and details you’d be better off not knowing. I’d like to, though. It’s a lovely Swiss watch of a book, perfectly structured: despite the fact that I knew there were several twists, and thought I saw them coming, I never did. Levin doesn’t do it by cheating or sleight of hand, but by telling you everything you need to know and letting you draw the wrong conclusions, the way a martial art will let the opponent’s own weight pull her off balance. It’s beautiful.

Levin creates a wonderfully cinematic text (many of his books have been turned into films, and he’s also written stage plays.) You read a scene in a diner, with the main characters having an earnest discussion, and you realize you can actually see the other patrons having milkshakes and hamburgers and twisting on their stools. The bit parts are already cast.

This was Levin’s first book, and it’s a little less satirical than some of his later work (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, Sliver.) Instead, it’s chilling, especially in its portrayal of the psychopath’s utter entitlement to the good life: money, fame, women’s bodies. Nothing should stand in his way, particularly not those women and their annoyingly real bodies. The book is far from violent, but it’s frightening. It reminded me in some ways of Wait Until Dark — not because it has any plot points in common with that wonderfully scary film, but because the women in this film, too, seem blind.

I love Levin’s work, and this was a shivery pleasure. Teresa had me read this for our yearly book swap, and I think now the only book I have left of his to read is his dystopic This Perfect Day. What about you? Any Levin fans? Which is your favorite?

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8 Responses to A Kiss Before Dying

  1. Teresa says:

    When I read this, I had no idea that there were twists, so of course I was completely taken by surprise, but I wondered whether you’d pick up on them, knowing they were coming. The way he does it is just so wholly unexpected and perfectly executed.

    I need to read more of his books; Stepford Wives is the only other one I’ve read.

    • Jenny says:

      No, I guessed completely wrong! I had a whole scenario built up in my head that didn’t turn out to be the right one at all. But it was done too perfectly for me. Marvelous.

      Highly recommend Rosemary’s Baby, especially for the creep factor, and The Boys From Brazil is just wonderful both as a book and as a movie.

  2. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    It’s so hard to comment on this, as one can’t even mention that absolutely stunning twist in the… Argh! See! Seriously, I loved this one. I have a few to go still – rationing out that pleasure.

    • Jenny says:

      He is always a pleasure. I liked Sliver a little less than the others, but that may have been because I watched the film first. The book is probably just as good as any of the others.

  3. anokatony says:

    I’ve been contemplating re-reading Rosemary’s Baby, but somehow am not sure Ira Levin warrants it. Maybe he does.

    • Jenny says:

      Rosemary’s Baby works so well as a satire as well as an under-the-skin horror novel that I would guess it would be worth revisiting. It’s also not very long!

  4. Great review, I should love to read this book

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