©1953 Ira Levin (P)2011 AudioGO
St. Louis, Missouri
Which is strange because I don’t usually listen to books like this, preferring the crime fiction set in country houses with plenty of Daimlers and second footmen sprinkled about. But I devoured this one with relish. And I may do it again.
Yes, I know it’s a classic—but it’s one of those paradoxes called a “modern classic”. Usually, I prefer to invest my time in works that have stood the test of time. And, to be blunt, I eschew more modern works for the simple reason that many have been instrumental in establishing—or at least validating—the modern, attenuated, relativistic times in which we live. When in the market for murder I like my detectives to operate in a somewhat firmer moral universe. Of course I expect ambiguities; life is full of them so fiction should be, too. But start psychologizing away motives or blaming socio-economic conditions and you lose me. The modern craze for the anti-hero just ain’t my bag.
So when Audible made A Kiss Before Dying available as a Daily Deal, I hesitated. Wasn't this a harbinger of a genre that lent luster to the lurid? That glorified the grit? Isn’t it the story of a poor kid who’ll do anything just to get ahead?
Yes. But while we are shown the psychological and economic conditions that made murder possible, those conditions are never advanced as an excuse for our bad boy—not even by the bad boy himself. And he is indubitably bad. So much so that, near the end of the book, when you overhear his voice from another room your skin crawls. At least mine did.
Under the surface of the book there’s undoubtedly a hint of what would become more and more fashionable later on: a critique of “conventional” morality. It’s akin to the sort of critique that could be taken (and certainly was taken, by many in the last several decades) as “proof” of the bankruptcy of “conventional” morality. But, as Oscar Wilde said of A Picture of Dorian Grey, this story contains, “a moral which the prurient mind will not be able to find…but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy.”
Approached in that spirit, things begin to clarify. Save for the father’s moral strictures—anticipated by his daughter but never spoken by him—the whole mechanism of the tragedy might never have gotten underway. But as I said, the strictures are unspoken. We never know if they would have been. True, the father was a hard nut in the past, but there’s also the possibility that his daughter is jumping to conclusions when she says he will cut her off without a penny when he finds she has…done something I can’t say or I’ll ruin the book for you. And in the meantime you come to empathize with and even like the father. Reality, in other words, is far more nuanced than any straight-ahead sociological critique. As in the case of Wilde’s masterpiece, a novel about a sociopath need not glorify his disorder.
Then there’s the structure. This is simply one of the best-constructed stories I’ve ever listened to; I don't believe I've felt so much suspense since Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. What seems a minor detail at the beginning adds immeasurably to the crescendo at the end. The run-up to the first crime is pitted with so many false starts, where things could have gone differently (i.e.: better), as to make one a little squeamish. And the real bombshell, the thing that makes you go prickly all over, occurs in the second third of the book. That’s when you realize Levin has pulled a masterful fast one on you and all you can do is admire his dexterity.
The writing—the way sentences and images are crafted—is superb. A burst of tropical birdsong is likened to the flutter of multi-colored playing cards tossed in the sun. The description of a copper smelting works verges on a sort of Walt-Whitman-esque poetry. The story moves like a smartly edited movie. And perhaps best of all, Levin writes with what Stephen King has called a dry wit. Completely different from, let’s say, a Campion or Lord Peter story, but still wit enough to leaven the tension. No pun intended.
Our narrator, Mauro Hantman, was the right pick for this story. Much of it takes place inside our bad boy’s head, and there Hantman is spot-on. During dialogue between characters—especially male characters—I needed to concentrate sometimes to keep them separate (not unusual in audiobooks, no matter how well-performed). But overall and end-to-end, he does a superb job; it is one of those happy instances where the tone of the writing coincides perfectly with the tone of the reader’s voice.
It is so difficult to provide an appropriate review of this book. I want to call it a mystery, but you know who the killer is the entire time. Seemingly, you know exactly what is going on at all times, so I'm not really sure why I want to insist that it is a mystery. And yet, about 1/3 of the way into the book there is a reveal that you don't see coming because you didn't even realize it hadn't come yet - which I'm sure makes no sense at all, but it is an accurate statement. Like a good magician, Levin distracts you over here on the left and when you look back over to your right you are amazed and thinking "Wait a minute - how did he do that?".
Pretty much everything Ira Levin put his hand to was a success. Novels, screenplays, plays, even lyrics. (No need to mention Son of Rosemary. Someone with his stellar track record can be forgiven one trainwreck.) As the introduction recorded here convincingly argues--he was a genius. In the end, though, he was long on chilling plot twists and high concepts and somewhat short on psychological depth. While that hardly matters in Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, it begins to tear at the credibility of this, his first novel. I listened to it on two longish drives and it passed the time nicely. But about halfway through, I lost any real interest in the characters. The highly cinematic set pieces (the ending especially) are great fun, but didn't have any emotional resonance for me since the characters seemed like cut outs. Mauro Hantman does a great job with some tricky plot twists that depend upon keeping voices distinct but ambiguous. He has a great quality to his voice.
If you like suspense thrillers you must read this. It is my favourite Ira Levin book, beautifully structured with great language and characters.
I have never had such a shock after a 'reveal' and rarely been as captivated by a story.
The narration is great too. Highly recommended.
Considering it was written in 1954, it feels very modern. The character development is excellent, and you feel like it all makes sense. Very suspenseful. If you listen while driving, you might get a speeding ticket like me!
Too bad that the films that were made of this book were not good. It would be a great movie if you stick to the text!
No intro or put at the end of the book. It gives away way too much I have no idea why anyone thought this a good idea
I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.
What do three college age daughters of a copper magnate and a handsome young man have in common? Could it have something to do with another handsome young man who doesn’t give up! And who is whom?
This is an intricately woven thriller! And no stone is left unturned.
I have to say, I read this book every free minute I could find, and then some!
I will be looking at other books by Ira Levin. He has become one of my favorite storytellers.
This was one of several of exceptional books by Ira Levin. Movie lovers will know his works – including this one A Kiss Before Dying as well as, Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, etc. He is also very well known for his award winning play, Deathtrap. Levin’s best-known play is Deathtrap, which holds the record as the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway and brought Levin his second Edgar Award. In 1982, it was made into a film starring Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine.
Fun listening. A Kiss Before Dying is just under nine hours, narrated nicely by Mauro Hentman. Written in 1953, the story might be considered today to be YA, in that the setting is the college world and there are no explicit sex scenes. A handsome, alpha male finds himself trapped into marrying a fellow student because of an unplanned pregnancy. The story follows his devious mechinations through her and her siblings to get his hands on family fortunes. The environs of the 1950s is a treat to listen to, i.e., a housedress is mentioned, as are phone booths, the bad guy wears a fedora (and he’s in college), a girl wears white gloves and a hat with lace, considerable smoking, all common place at the time. Part of creating most of the college-age male characters includes military service, i.e., Japan during WWII. Keep in mind that A Kiss Before Dying was written in the early 1950s, and is not simply a modern-day who-done-it written to convey the 1950s.
Shortly after this book was written, it received many plaudits in addition to an Edgar Award for best break out mystery novel. This story is probably a must read for anyone interested in reading, or writing, the crime thriller.
This has been my favorite book so far. I started to hate that my commute ended!
Twists and turns kept me attentive. Wondering how the main character would handle certain situations.
My favorite character was Bud....
I rented the original movie last night. VERY disappointed. It didn't even follow the book. Sad me.
This is no work of genius, contrary to the critical/biographical introduction lauding Ira Levin.
The intro prepares the reader for great things which, for me, were not delivered.
Many novels start strong, because the author expends his all at the start. The back and forth story grows convoluted and vague and the characters do not really develop, rather, they become more superficial and unconvincing: it is difficult to empathize with anyone; a good writer draws the reader into the emotions and motives of all the characters.
As the book progresses, Levin's straight-forward style degenerates into purple prose and drags on tediously toward a makeshift and anti-climatic end. A Kiss Before Dying is a story that doesn't know where it's going.
A real classic in the noir genre is is James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, a superb tale of the criminal impulse infecting ordinary people. Levin's "Kiss" just doesn't make the grade.
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