A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin – Book Review

Back in my teens, I’ve read the Russian translation of this book so many times the whole sections of dialogue and descriptions kept popping up in my brain as I was reading it in English. It was fun to revisit in its original language, particularly as the Russian translation couldn’t really capture the 1950s expressions and quirks.

A Kiss Before Dying was Ira Levin’s first novel, and while it’s not as well-known as Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, it’s an amazing work of suspense. The story opens in 1950, on a campus of a small-town college in USA, where Dorothy, one of the students, just confessed to her boyfriend that she is pregnant. Unfortunately for Dorothy, her handsome boyfriend is a gold-digging narcissistic psychopath with no soul, who is dismayed by the news to put it mildly. Dorothy comes from money, but they both know that her father would disown her if she got married without his knowledge and gave birth suspiciously quickly afterwards. Simply ditching her is also not an option, since her father would do everything to make his life hell. Dorothy won’t do the operation and when the pills her boyfriend gives her fail to get rid of the pregnancy, he is prepared to take far more drastic measures to get himself out of the situation.

Ira Levin really knows how to do tension and keep you reading. A quote from Stephen King on the back of the book describes him as “the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel”, and that’s the truth. I’ve read many thrillers that kept me on the edge by making me want to know what happens next, but if that’s the only thing that makes it a compelling read, once I’m finished with the book I’m not likely to ever revisit it again. I’ve re-read most of Levin’s books countless times, and I think I’ve done it partly in order to admire the sheer craft and style that goes into his novels.

The language is simple, taut, economical, without a single sentence wasted. The way the scenes build up and unfold and raise tension is just masterful, and there are so many sneaky little details that make you go “aha!” on repeated readings. In this book, it’s also fascinating and chilling to see the perspective of someone who is completely without empathy or human decency, and plans his actions in a cold clinical way unburdened by conscience (as someone who admires intelligence and attention to detail, it made me feel a bit dirty that I had something like grudging respect for his meticulous plans as terrible as they were).

I had a couple of minor problems; one of the crucial characters’ motivations seem a tad unbelievable, and the character himself felt a bit contrived and smartass to the point of being annoying. Also, there’s a switch of perspective in the middle section of the book where it becomes more like a typical investigative whodunnit which is not as interesting, although that entire part then ends with a bang in a most chilling fashion. Still, I’m sure I’ll revisit the original English version many times over again.

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