War veteran, student, psychopath. The main character (who won’t be named here) is chasing Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon. Outwardly, the man spoils her with attention and love. Behind closed doors, he hates her. It’s the classic pulp-crime setup; a hateful man and an innocent girl trapped together as the tension rises.
The way in which Levin shifts from that formula is astounding. The book is broken into three sections, each named after one of the daughters of the copper tycoon. The shifting points of view, from man to curious sister, is perfectly executed, and allows Ira Levin to write both classic crime tales in one; of the villain and the investigator.
The violence is not graphic, though its depiction is often stomach-churning. It feels like seeing a child on train tracks and not being able to do anything about it. The reader wants the characters to see that they’re putting themselves into dodgy situations, but they never do.
Which is not to say that the setups are clichéd. Ira Levin always had a great talent of thinking up horrible scenarios (see The Stepford Wives or Rosemary’s Baby for more examples) and A Kiss Before Dying, written when Levin was 25, shows the roots of this thinking taking shape.
A particularly grim image Levin conjures is that of a Japanese sniper who the antagonist killed in World War II. The sniper, terrified of death, begs for mercy as he pisses his pants. The antagonist is enlivened by the power he holds over him, and disgusted by the soldier’s terror, seeing it as weakness. Things like this surely occurred in WWII, and it may seem to have no real meaning to the plot of the novel, but the image is here rendered so horridly, so descriptively, that it stays with the reader. The man’s reaction to this death is so nasty that it immediately let’s the reader know the man is a terrible person.
Reviewing A Kiss Before Dying without giving anything away is very hard. The simplest way to put it is that if you’re a fan of modern thrillers, or Ira Levin’s more well-known work, you should probably read this. It’s a great prototype of the modern crime novel, without cliché or generic twists.