Arguably, Ira Levin wrote some of the best high concept stories ever: Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys from Brazil. A Kiss Before Dying was his first published novel and shows him coming out swinging. It won the Edgar Award in 1954 and is listed at 44 in the CWA top 100, a position it richly deserves.
It’s difficult to give any summary of the plot without giving away an early surprise, so I won’t go much beyond chapter one here. Equally, I wouldn’t read the Chelsea Cain introduction until you’ve finished (although to be fair she doesn’t give too much away, she did colour my reading of the first part of the book).
We meet the blond, blue-eyed villain of the story straight away, almost mechanically brow-beating his rich girlfriend into having an abortion so that her father doesn’t cut her off from the family money.
‘He has discovered that she liked to be called “baby”. When he called her “baby” he could get her to do practically anything. He had thought about it, and decided it had something to do with the coldness she felt towards her father.’
His behaviour goes downhill from there. As the introduction points out: ‘Worst. Boyfriend. Ever’. In each of the book’s three parts, he finds an ingenious new way to ruin lives whilst getting away scot-free.
It’s interesting to compare Levin’s portrayal of a psychotic personality with that of Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, also written in the early 50s. Levin’s killer is far more low key, less sympathetic, and crazy in a far more pragmatic but ultimately nastier way. He appears to have been born bad rather than suffering from an illness. Like Millar’s killer, though, there is one person who sees the good in him.
Ultimately A Kiss Before Dying earns its position as a classic, although probably best avoided if you’re in a new relationship.
Score: 4/5 (I was tempted to deduct a point for the cover)
Final destination: Back to the library.
Note that judging by the synopsis on Wikipedia, the 1956 film starring a noticeably-non-blond Robert Wagner seems to be a truncated version of the story.